Lawsuits say Illinois companies must make sites accessible for blind, visually impaired

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Lawsuits say Illinois companies must make sites accessible for blind, visually impaired

Via Chicago Tribune

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

“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.”

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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