On Handicapped Access, Target’s Fighting The Wrong Fight For The Wrong Reason

Written by Evan Schuman
September 20th, 2006

When a federal judge in California agreed that a lawsuit from the National Federation for the Blind can proceed against Target, E-Commerce executives should have breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The lawsuit essentially argues that Target’s online operation violated the American with Disabilities Act because it is not designed to easily accessible to blind users. Target’s defense has been that the ADA does not explicitly talk about Web sites so, Target reasons, it’s not covered.

That argument is wrong for so many reasons. For the moment, let’s set aside that the argument is wrong legally (the California judge already dealt with that one). From Target’s perspective, it’s more relevant that the answer is wrong from a marketing, customer service and an IT and design perspective.

The original intent of ADA was to allow consumers with physical handicaps the same access to public places?including retailers?as the rest of the public. The E-Commerce sites of large retailers today are natural extensions of their physical storefronts and the intent of the initial law clearly should apply to Web sites.

What if Target took this argument to its next stage and decided that discrimination laws and hate laws didn’t apply to their Web site because those federal laws?many of which were written long before today’s Web was prominent?didn’t specifically mention them? Would it feel free to flout those laws on its Web site by publishing racial slurs and hate-filled death threats?

E-Commerce is such an ingrained part of retail today that all physical laws?where possible?must apply.

But even if Target had a more sound defense to this litigation, why in the world would it want to pursue it? Why is it spending a mountain of legal dollars to justify keeping a large segment of potential consumers from easily using its site? And it’s doing so in a very public manner.

Let’s take a look at what is at play here. To make a large site such as Target’s accessible, it needs to add in text mouse-overs (alt-text) so that screen readers can speak what images represent. But many highly-designed sites simply don’t work without being able to see the images so a more radical redesign is often required.

Those more substantial redesigns can cost money, but it’s not an obscene amount. A site such as Target’s would likely cost anywhere from $800,000 to $2 million to make accessible. Although not pocket change, it’s a onetime expense that Target could easily absorb. Their legal costs in fighting this?not to mention the loss of business from the associated bad publicity?will surely be more.

But ROI concerns are also not the real reason for Target to not fight this. The real reason to make those onetime changes is that result in a more efficient, faster and simply superior E-Commerce site for all consumers.

For years, retailers have gone for flash (as well as Flash) and multimedia and arresting graphics with little regard with download time, increased probability of programming glitches and incompatibilities. With multiple OSes, different browsers, tons of updated add-ons, firewalls, spyware/pop-up blockers and computer screen sizes, it’s hard enough getting a design that will work for all. Add to this today’s mobile demands (PDAs, Smartphones) and site design is going to find it more difficult to present one appearance to all.

And yet, having multiple versions of the identical site rarely makes sense and it certainly would be a nightmare for retailers with constantly changing stock and prices. Maybe a car company could get away with it, but probably not.

The types of changes that the ADA is asking of retailers’ Web sites would?unintentionally?make so much of that better. It can then be justified under the marketing-friendly label of making the site more open to all.

Terry Golesworthy is the CEO of a research firm called The Customer Respect Group. (I probably should say that it’s a group that apparently doesn’t include certain Target execs, but I’ll be nice and not say that.) Golesworthy’s firm watches major retail sites and assess how well they handle consumer interaction issues, including site accessibility.

“I think Target is just the unfortunate test case, but it is nowhere near the only company to be at risk,” he said. “The clarity the case might bring to the area of accessibility means we might see a lot of projects fired up for defensive reasons. The Y2K issue is the closest thing we have seen recently that might be an analogy. This is, of course, smaller, but represents the same type of potential behavior with executive management throwing money at a problem they really do not understand but have a perceived business downside. This time, though, it?s for litigious and PR reasons.”

Agreeing with Golesworthy is veteran retail technology analyst Paula Rosenblum, who today is a vice president with the Retail Systems Alert Group.

“This lawsuit, assuming it is successful, is a double-edged sword. The ‘beauty’ of government mandates and singular events like Y2K is they drive enterprises out of their short-term ROI mentalities,” Rosenblum said. “Complying with new regulations will either be a huge distraction for retailers as they rush to comply with a government mandate, or will serve as an opportunity to not just comply with the mandate, but take the opportunity to clean up their on-line and cross-channel acts. This is long overdue.”

In Golesworthy’s latest study of the Web sites of the Fortune 100, his team found that only 12 sites were “fine,” 52 had “real problems” and 36 were in the inbetween “amber” stage, he said. Target was among the 52 with “real problems” and Wal-Mart was in the amber inbetween zone.

For the record, the 12 whose sites were found to indeed be ADA-friendly were three tech players (IBM, Microsoft and HP), three financial firms (Wells-Fargo, Bank of America and Washington Mutual), three manufacturers (Delphi, Dow Chemicals and John Deere), one insurance company (Nationwide Mutual), a pharmaceutical (Johnson & Johnson), and one lone retailer: Walgreens.

Golesworthy’s advice to Target is to give up and salvage as much of this mess as possible. “You basically fall on your sword and say ‘We’re good people. Really'” he said.

Like all other corporate issues, this one resists being made neat and clean. For example, consumers are not neatly split into sighted and non-sighted. The visually-impaired?which includes colorblindness?is potentially a much bigger audience of lost consumers.

“Some companies like to use their corporate colors, which not necessarily easy to read,” Golesworthy said. But a complicated design is the biggest problem. Even with mouse-over alt-text, a design that relies on tables and formats will simply jump all over the place when the graphics are turned off, making it very difficult to navigate, he said.

Another factor is the global market. The European Union has mandated strict accessibility rules for any retailer that wants to sell to Europeans. Those rules are slated to take effect in 2010. For multinational retailers, “you’re going to have to do it eventually” so why fight it now?, he asked.

Why, indeed?


5 Comments | Read On Handicapped Access, Target’s Fighting The Wrong Fight For The Wrong Reason

  1. Tony Says:

    This really isn’t a strategy issue, or accessibility issue. It is a single special interest group suing a major retailer because it CAN. The vision impaired don’t have the same accessibility to billboards along the highway, most certainly not the “new” style that are essentially huge and annoying TVs. They also, for the most part aren’t able to physically DRIVE to stores, where they could equally miss out on huge and colorful displays, sale signs, and aisle markers. Sure, there are supposed to be (or mandated) brail aisle identifiers, but if someone actually needed them they are certainly not as accessible as signs that can be seen from many aisles away. It would be far more practical to have another site beyond the main site dedicated to the visually impaired, but then that would be considered discrimination as well. Oddly enough, everyone in the world is NOT blind or visually impaired (hence the concept behind the term). It makes NO sense at all to force everyone else into a little visually impaired box of limited color, visual display and interaction. Some people like animated sites full of cheesy flash animations, or they simply would not exist! Online shopping for most anything beyond downloadable music is a VISUAL experience, by nature and DESIGN, the internet is a visual animal. A picture is said to be worth a thousand words, so how exactly does the author and proponents of this suit expect Target or any other online e-tailer to EXPLAIN every picture of every item in their ever-changing inventory? Explaining texture, feel, fit, drape is fine initially, but just like color and fashion they are subjective to consumers. One thing right in this article is this is just a bunch of people making attorneys richer. The end result will be no better for the visually impaired, but probably a lot worse for the sighted. Welcome to the wonderful world of political correctness…

  2. Jim Thatcher Says:

    It seems to me that Tony is living in a world of, say, 80 years ago. It’s true that “The vision impaired don’t have the same accessibility to billboards along the highway”. And the hearing impaired don’t have the same access to cell phone noise in the airport. Think of all the steps folks in wheel chairs don’t have access to. But most of us believe that it is a civil right, in fact it is civil decency, to do what we can to build accessibility into the picture as a normal part of doing business. That is what the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990 guarantees – access to the world of business and entertainment for people with disabilities.

    Even though the National Federation of the Blind focuses on the issues it knows best, the suit relates to all people with disabilities. One of the most damning access failures on the Target website was that it was impossible to complete a purchase without using a mouse – using only the keyboard. Folks with even minor mobility impairments as well as blind visitors were shut out of shopping on (This problem has now been fixed.)

    The issue is not whether people with disabilities have a right to expect accommodation, but whether that right guaranteed by the ADA, extends to the WEB. That was the issue decided by Judge Patel on September 6, 2006 when she allowed the suit to move forward.

    Providing accessible web sites, as Evan Schuman says, does not mean dumbing down design. The Target web site could be made accessible without changing a single pixel of the visual display. It would be better for Target to take on a significant redesign, as Evan suggests, into a lighter faster CSS based out that would entice more customers and function on more devices. But such forward looking design is not a requirement of accessibility – for the blind or for any disability.

  3. Robert Schoenfeld Says:

    The ADA never just meant physical disabilities it also included visual
    audio and mental disabilities in the original and passed law. For Target
    to assume the law doesn’t apply to its web page is wrong not only
    because tha law doesn’t mention the web at all but also because the web
    page is interstate commerce and the ADA definately applies

    Robert Schoenfeld
    Rapid Telecomm

  4. Carl Says:

    The ADA “issue” is ridiculous! I feel bad for those who are handicapped, but to impose the costs of equipping our nation for the small percentage of the population that is handicapped has become unreasonable. For example, a movie theater must not only provide seating for the handicapped, but must provide seating that is “equivalent” to that of seating for non-handicapped individuals. This requires elevators, mezzanines, and numerous ramps. For a stadium seating theater this represents almost 4% of the cost of a new facility while handicapped patrons represent less than .02% of the total patrons a theater will see in a year. There must be a reasonableness criteria for any such equivalency requirement! It is one thing to provide access and another to provide the parity that is being required!

    The requirement as to whether this or any accommodation should be required should be based on the relative benefit. Although we would like to think everything should be accessible, it is just too expensive, and the cost would likely go to waste. My perception, and likely the perception of most of your readers, is that a very small percentage of those who are visually impaired actually surf the web, let alone shop on the web. If I am wrong, I would like to see evidence of this usage (something other than anecdotal evidence). This is a waist of valuable resources. This lunacy should not continue!!!!

  5. Wade Chandler Says:

    What I believe is funny about this article is the fact it bashes Target and specifically mentions alt-text. Yet where the article is posted doesn’t use alt-text nor does the authors own Go to and see the tabs at the top of the web site. They use a no-no for accessibility…images for text, and then to top it all off the site doesn’t include alt-text for those images which allow site navigation.


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