Target Corporation and Apple, Inc. have reached agreements with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) to make changes to their websites to accommodate blind consumers. The agreements follow a groundbreaking federal ruling concluding that retailers with physical locations must make accommodations to their websites under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

In addition, the NFB also reportedly is working with Amazon to make its site easier for blind and vision-impaired people to navigate.

“It is our sincere hope that other businesses providing goods and services over the Internet will follow Target’s example and take affirmative steps to provide full access to their Web sites by blind consumers,” stated NFB President Dr. Marc Maurer in a statement announcing the Target settlement.

ADA Dispute

The NFB maintains that the ADA applies websites operated by companies with “brick and mortar” retail outlets while retailers have argued that the ADA was not applicable because their websites are not physical spaces or a “place of public accommodation” under Title III of the ADA.

District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of the Northern District of California allowed a suit between Target and the NFB to go forward, holding that the ADA could apply where there was a “nexus” between the use of the website and enjoyment of the goods and services offered at the retailer’s physical store.

The court reasoned that “The [ADA] applies to the services of [sic] a place of public accommodation, not services in [sic] a place of public accommodation,” the judge stated in her opinion. “[I]t is clear that the purpose of the statute is broader than mere physical access—seeking to bar actions or omissions which impair a disabled person’s ‘full enjoyment’ of services or goods of a covered accommodation.”

Agreement Terms

Target has agreed to ensure that blind guests using screen-reader software are able to acquire the same information and engage in the same interactions that are available to sighted guests. The retailer will add to its site more alt text tags, which are invisible to users but allow screen readers to convert contents into speech. Target also agreed to make its site easier to navigate using just a keyboard, rather than requiring a mouse.

In a public statement accompanying Apple’s agreement, Apple said, “Apple, the Attorney General and the NFB differ as to what applicable law requires in regard to iTunes and the iTunes Services, but whether legally required or not, Apple is committed to making iTunes Fully and Equally Accessible,” the agreement stated.

The agreement notes that Apple already includes Screen Access Software as part of its OS X operating system on a Mac, which enables the blind to use iTunes and access iTunes Services.  Third parties have also developed such software for Windows.

Why This Matters: The federal district court decision in the Target case is only precedential in the Northern District of California. Nonetheless, given Target’s and Apple’s agreements, it is likely that companies with brick-and-mortar locations that also market their products and services via their websites will most likely make their sites accessible to the blind and visually impaired in a fashion similar to the Target and Apple approaches. It remains an open question, however, as to whether sites that do not have a corresponding physical “place of public accommodation” likewise have an obligation to comply with the ADA.