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Does your Web site discriminate against the disabled?

by on
in Employment Law,Human Resources

Until recently, companies that sold products and services over the Web didn’t feel that the ADA applied to them, meaning they weren’t required to make their sites accessible to visually impaired or disabled people.

But a lawsuit against Target stores has Web retailers rethinking that assumption.

The National Federation for the Blind (NFB) levied an ADA lawsuit at Target last year, complaining that the retailer’s Web site was inaccessible to blind customers.

Target tried to win a quick dismissal of the case by pointing to a long-standing precedent-setting case, Access Now v. Southwest Airlines, Inc., 227 F. Supp 2d 1312 (S.D. Fla., 2002)

In that case, blind patrons sued, claiming they couldn’t buy airline tickets over Southwest’s site. They said they should be entitled to equal access to the Web site under the ADA. In dismissing the case, the judge said the ADA’s promise of equal access only applied to physical places. A Web site could only be a “place” if there were a link between the site and a physical accommodation.

The NFB believes it has found that link in the new Target case.

They say Target’s online pharmacy allows people to order prescriptions for pickup at the store. The Web site provides discount tickets that can be printed out and redeemed at the store.

When Target tried to dismiss the suit by citing the Southwest Airlines precedent, the federal judge would not do so. She noted that enough of a link exists to make it worth a look by a jury.

What is Web site accessibility?

While many components exist to a totally accessible site (see box below), the NFB’s main complaint in the Target case dealt with alt-text, which are textual descriptions of graphics on a Web page.

When blind users mouse over the graphics, their screen reader reads the description to them. According to the suit, the alt-text on Target’s site was misleading, missing or incomplete, leaving blind users with no way to use many of the site’s features.

Nonretailers affected, too

Other employers that are not retailers and don’t have to grapple with issues of Web site connections to their physical store should not ignore the larger matter of Web site accessibility. Sites that are used only by employees should be accessible for all disabled employees.

Similarly, any Web-based job application sites should be accessible to avoid the appearance of discouraging disabled applicants.

If you expect employees to access the Internet or company intranet to perform their jobs, you should amend employees’ job descriptions to include Internet research as an essential job function.

Disabled employees holding those jobs would then be entitled to reasonable accommodations.

Also, employers who work on federally funded contracts fall under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires companies working with federal dollars to maintain accessible Web sites.

What about blogging?

Employer-sponsored blogs should also be made accessible to all employees. It does not take a great deal of expense or effort to open blogs to disabled employees. A quick training session for employees in accessible blogging should eliminate most problems.

Final tip: Once you create an accessible Web site, let the world know. Instead of a liability, your site may draw disabled customers and applicants.  

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