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ONLINE BUSINESS

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American business moves fitfully toward website accessibility for the disabled.
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Unless you're doing business with the federal government or plan to, Section 508 doesn't directly apply. But Section 508 is looking more and more like a genuine commercial temblor. Consider: 29 states now have laws or guidelines to make their technology and that of companies doing business with them accessible to the disabled. And the aftershocks of Section 508 are spreading. In 2004, New York Attorney General (now governor) Eliot Spitzer settled with two major travel websites, Ramada Worldwide and Priceline.com (NASDAQ:PCLN), after both agreed to take steps to make their websites accessible to the blind and visually impaired. Said Spitzer: "Accessible websites are the wave of the future and the right thing to do."

It's hard to imagine a business owner who truly disagrees. Yet consider the very different stories of the restaurant chain Legal Sea Foods, which recently revamped its website, and the retail giant Target (NYSE:TGT), which finds itself in federal court for its failure to do so.

Legal Sea Foods has been solicitous of its blind customers for years--it has printed Braille menus for a decade. In 2005, when the company remade its website, it sought guidance from David Ticchi, who is the special assistant to the president of the company and who happens to walk the halls of Legal Sea Foods behind sweeps of a white cane. The Legal Sea Foods site is now certified as accessible to the visually impaired by the National Federation of the Blind. The cost of making the site accessible was about $5,000.

Target, on the other hand, has chosen to fight a class-action lawsuit rather than address the accessibility pitfalls at Target.com. The suit, filed by a blind UC Berkeley student and joined by the NFB, alleges that the Target website contains "thousands of access barriers that make it difficult, if not impossible, for blind customers to use the website," in violation of California law, which mirrors the federal Americans With Disabilities Act. The pivotal wording: "No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation."

Note the word place. Five years ago, a federal court sided with Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV), dismissing a lawsuit claiming similar discrimination with the view that the website was not a physical place. The Target complaint is framed differently, built on the argument that Target.com is an integral extension of the 205 stores the company operates in California. Among the services offered at Target.com: a store locator; a pharmacy through which prescriptions can be ordered for store pickup, and an online photo shop offering similar services.

Target did not respond directly to questions about the suit; rather, it said in a statement, "We have always and will continue to implement new technologies to our website. We are in the process of making online enhancements that will benefit all of our guests, including those with disabilities. These enhancements will occur regardless of the outcome of this lawsuit."

Lawsuits are costly, which makes it all the more interesting that at one point Target contacted Anna Bradley to ask about the cost of remediation for Target.com. She sent an estimate for $90,000.

In case you're wondering, no, Inc.'s site is not fully accessible. Bradley has given us a price of $25,205.

Last updated: Feb 1, 2007




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