Sept. 13--Three Illinois companies are accused of maintaining websites visually impaired consumers allegedly can't use in an age when online shopping is as important as walking into a store.
A California woman has filed lawsuits against Kmart, Empire Today and Ace Hardware, alleging that running websites and mobile apps that blind and visually impaired people can't read also means denying potential customers products and services, a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The three retailers named in the suits, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Chicago, join a growing list of big-name companies that have faced similar allegations, including Target, Netflix, and Illinois-based Grubhub and McDonald's.
Passed in 1990, the ADA predates most internet operations. Now livelihoods often depend on the internet, and commerce increasingly is taking place online. Some say the law needs to catch up to that reality, and since it hasn't, companies are leaving people out. Retailers, on the other hand, argue that constantly changing technology to keep websites accessible isn't quite as easy as it sounds.
Blind and visually impaired people use a combination of keyboard functions and screen-reading software to navigate websites, according to the lawsuits.
If a website isn't designed so that content can be turned into text -- like graphics or buttons on a site that are incorrectly labeled or lack certain coding -- the software can't function.
Kayla Reed, the California woman who filed the lawsuits, could not complete a purchase from Kmart.com because the purchase process was not accessible, according to her lawsuit against the retailer, a subsidiary of Hoffman Estates-based Sears Holdings Corp. Additionally, links on Kmart's mobile app lacked coding that would allow her to navigate, her suit says.
Representatives from Kmart and Oak Brook-based Ace declined to comment. Empire, based in Northlake, did not respond to requests for comment.
Reed was unavailable for comment, but her attorney, Marc Dann, said the issue is bigger than just the three retailers.
"The big picture here is that as commerce shifts from brick-and-mortar buildings to the web, access to visually impaired people becomes ... just as important as the ability to walk into a store," he said.
Each of the three lawsuits, which also allege the retailers violated California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, ask that the court order the defendants to change their policies, practices and procedures.
Retailers want everyone to be able to use their websites, David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation, said in a statement. They're "constantly innovating" to give their customers the latest technology, he said.
"Keeping websites accessible under those conditions is a constant game of catch-up," French said, "particularly when 'fixes' to make websites accessible have to work with a variety of types of accessibility software."
There are other methods for visually impaired people to read websites, said Luke Scriven, assistant technology manager at Chicago Lighthouse, an organization that works with the visually impaired. There are screen magnification programs that enlarge webpages.
But if the contrast of text is poor or the text is in cursive, for example, it might be difficult to read, said Scriven, who is not involved in the lawsuits.
Some large technology companies, such as Microsoft and Apple, take accessibility into account when they are designing programs and webpages, he said. But it's an education issue, as most developers aren't thinking about users who are blind and visually impaired when they design.
"The internet is kind of like the Wild West," Scriven said. "There's a whole bunch of people out there who are developing websites. They oftentimes aren't taking accessibility into account, and it's very difficult to regulate that."
Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Justice was working to establish standards for how to make websites accessible, a move it believed was "crucial to achieving the ADA's mandate," according to its website. In July, however, the department moved that task to its "inactive" list.
French, from the National Retail Federation, said clear standards from the Justice Department would be the "first step in ensuring that websites are accessible for all."
There are other guidelines out there, but they don't carry the weight of law.
The World Wide Web Consortium, a standards body for the web, first started developing guidelines in 1997 and published them in 2000, said Judy Brewer, director of the Web Accessibility Initiative at the organization.
A 2.0 version of those guidelines was published in 2008 and remains the standard for governments and companies around the world, Brewer said. The guidelines include making sure nontext content has a text alternative and captions are provided for audio content, to aid deaf users.
"Typically, for simple websites, there are simple solutions. For more complicated websites, there's more to think about," Brewer said. "There's clear guidance for this."
The organization continually updates the free technical materials it provides to help developers abide by the guidelines, such as sample code and tutorials. "Everything is available to make that happen," Brewer said.
But issues still arise.
Two blind and visually impaired California residents sued Chicago-based Grubhub in June, alleging the food delivery company's website and app were inaccessible to them. The plaintiffs could not order food, the lawsuit alleged. Grubhub declined to comment.
One of the plaintiffs in that case also sued McDonald's in April over similar allegations. The complaint alleged that because the plaintiff wasn't able to use the website, he couldn't find locations, see menu descriptions or find coupons.
Both cases are pending.
Making sure websites are coded properly is absolutely vital to consumers who are blind and visually impaired, said Tyler Bachelder, who works at Chicago Lighthouse. He was born visually impaired and uses text-to-speech software "pretty much exclusively," he said.
This issue doesn't just affect online shopping -- it affects all aspects of life and work conducted online.
"Anything you use a PC for, I use it for the exact same purposes with different methods," Bachelder said.
The problem, he said, is that everyone needs to be on the same page and they're not. From management to web designers, employees need to collaborate to build company websites with blind and visually impaired people in mind, he said.
"Making a digital space accommodating is much easier than making a physical one accommodating," Bachelder said. "It needs to be paid attention to, because this is an entire consumer base."
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