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Since the National Federation of the Blind sued Target Corp. for the inaccessibility of its Web site, many people have taken sides, vilifying Target and/or lionizing NFB in turn. I think it’s too early for that, if it’s necessary at all. In terms of US law, this was a suit that needed to happen, because the case law on Web accessibility is so far pretty thin. The most important thing to take away from this news is that the same case could be brought against dozens of comparable e-commerce sites, and all over problems that stop many users dead in their tracks, and yet could be fixed without affecting their visual design or functionality.

I’m hesitant to paint Target as the solitary enemy of users with disabilities. Let’s be clear: The accessibility of Target’s site is terrible. But in a short review I did of big-box store sites this morning, they’re not the worst around. In fact, they’re pretty much the middle of the range.

Take Please. From an accessibility standpoint, if Target is bad, Costco is a godless abomination. Never mind the distinct lack of alt text (which, by the way, is not the alpha and omega of Web accessibility): Costco’s homepage contains over a hundred subcategories in hidden drop-down boxes. But they’re not links. Noooooo. They’re table cells, with mouse events that fire JavaScript functions to load the relevant pages. Nice. The Costco site is not only inaccessible, its code is so poorly designed that its bloated size alone contributes to major usability problems for everyone.

Costco is only one example of many I found. But I’m picking on them in particular because their brick-and-mortar operation is refreshingly progressive. The company prides itself on a “workplace focused on ethics and obeying the law”, and has enormous signs at their front door stating that they strive to accommodate the needs of their customers in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

So, to what do we attribute the utter inaccessibility of many e-commerce sites: ignorance, miscommunication, or malice? I’ve seen all three in practice. Often, it doesn’t take the threat of a lawsuit to get site owners to come around; they merely need to understand the problems, and what they can do to solve them, in order of impact on the user.

But I’ve also seen cases where it’s a legal game of chicken: some companies refuse to comply with a legal mandate that they feel doesn’t clearly apply to them. They’re gambling that the cost of being found guilty of non-compliance is lower than that of conforming to a standard that may not apply to them. This strategy falls apart like a house of cards as soon as one of them is found liable. And it’s a tactic I find particularly odious when they’re consciously acting to keep users with disabilities out.

The fact is that the Web has afforded many people with disabilities new-found potential to buy and sell things, work, manage finances, find community, gather news, and access government services — all things able-bodied people take for granted. When people with disabilities received legal protection, it wasn’t given out of pity. It was given to protect their right to participate equally in society. Web designers and developers can enable that equal participation with every site they design, using modern coding principles. Or they can hide in a castle or a cave, clutching their legacy code, certain that those evil, litigious disabled people are out to get them.

So, which is it?

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