Missing the Target

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With about $176 billion to spend, disabled Americans have astonishing buying power, more than twice that of teenagers, according to the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. Yet it took decades — and a shove from landmark legislation — for many companies to tap into that lucrative market by making their stores and offices accessible to the disabled. Now, as more and more business moves on line, will the companies drag their feet once again?

Not if Bruce Sexton can help it. Sexton is 26, blind, and celebrating an unprecedented victory: A federal court decision last month ruled that he and the National Federation of the Blind could sue mega-retailer Target for not making its website accessible to the disabled. Though Sexton and the federation must still prove their case, the ruling gives them an excellent shot — and will almost certainly persuade companies nationwide to redesign their websites with the disabled in mind.

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But here's the thing: Why would it take a lawsuit to get those companies to act?

Smart Main Street merchants learned decades ago that shutting out disabled customers was not only bad for the disabled, but bad for business. No one knew exactly how many disabled shoppers there were at the time, but the number was surely in the millions, and that meant lots of cash going unspent. So the merchants widened their aisles, replaced their stairs with ramps, and displayed their goods in ways that allowed blind people like Sexton to tell what they were buying. But the economy's doors did not open wide for the disabled until 1992, when the Americans with Disabilities Act took effect.

The act's purpose, said Congress, was "to establish a clear and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability." That covered a lot of ground, and a lot of people — some 43 million, by Congress's estimate. To be sure, the new law did not please everyone. Businesses griped about the cost of altering their bricks and mortar and, more vociferously, about fighting lawsuits claiming violations of the act. Horror stories, some even true, abounded of serial plaintiffs filing hundreds of cases against businesses they had never visited. Yet one way or another, the accommodations got made, and the nation was largely better for it.

But when the economy changed, and more and more Americans started doing their business online, the bricks-and mortar merchants seemed not to have learned their lesson. Sexton, for example, could get around the stores in town, but he couldn't easily navigate a computer screen, a tough predicament for a Bay Area teenager headed to U.C. Berkeley.

Once again, though, people slowly but surely got smart. The World Wide Web Consortium, the international organization that sets standards for the Web, came up with guidelines for making a website accessible to the disabled. They included using prominent headings on the site, putting invisible alt-text — it's what causes messages to pop up when you move a cursor over an image — in graphics, and allowing functions to be controlled by keystrokes rather than just mouse clicks. Many companies followed the guidelines, allowing Sexton and his peers to use software like JAWS for translating the websites into spoken words or even Braille. Last summer, Google got into the act by introducing Google Access, a search process that ranks websites according to how easy they are to read.

But not all companies and websites went along with the guidelines, including Target.com. So earlier this year, Sexton and the Federation of the Blind sued Target for violating the disabilities act with an inaccessible website. It seemed a futile move. Everyone knew the act applied only to a "place of accommodation," a physical spot rather than some space in the ether. Everyone knew that because courts had said so, and Target's lawyers made this compelling point in asking the judge to dismiss the suit. But everyone, it turned out, was wrong.

Through some creative lawyering, Sexton and the federation argued that Target.com was as much a part of Target's 1,400 retail stores as the shelves stocked with crockpots and ladies' boots. The website told you what was in the stores, what was on special there, where the stores were located, how to get coupons online, and scads of other information that made shopping at the stores easier. By limiting access to Target.com, they argued, the company was limiting full use of the stores.

It worked. And though Target concedes nothing, saying its website "complies with all applicable laws" and that it is "committed to vigorously defending this case," Sexton calls this "a big victory for us," one that helps propel his plan to open a training center for the blind after he graduates from Berkeley in 2008.

But the court decision makes you wonder why it takes a tricky legal argument to make websites accessible. The disabilities act creates "a comprehensive prohibition" on discrimination. How can "comprehensive" cover physical stores and not independent websites? Either people are not reading the law correctly, or the law should be amended.

And what's with Target? It's known as one of the smartest retail operators in the country, if not the world, having practically invented the cheap-chic mass market. Disabled Americans are sitting there with $176 billion, and though it pains me personally to admit this, the number of people whose aging eyes make reading websites tough is growing every day. How could executives of Target fail to see the overwhelming benefit of making Target.com accessible to this market?

I figure there's only one explanation — they must be blind.