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Act on accessibility now, before it hurts

You could be next in the firing line

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Comment There are two cases, that I am aware of, moving through the courts in the US relating to accessibility of IT solutions.

The first is being brought by a customer of target.com. Target.com is the ecommerce arm of Target that has a US-wide chain of department stores. The design of the website makes it inaccessible to the blind, and thereby violates federal and state laws prohibiting discrimination against the disabled. The first stage of the case revolved around whether the law applies to the website, as compared to the physical stores. The basic answer is yes, with some legal niceties. Target does not deny that the site has accessibility problems.

In fact, it is difficult to understand why Target decided to contest the case. I am sure that a reasonably modest out-of-court settlement and an agreement to resolve the technical issues over a reasonable period of time would have been acceptable to both sides. There is now no doubt that Target is going to have to improve the website to make it more accessible both from a social responsibility and commercial point of view. It also now seems highly likely that the claimant will receive damages and costs. If Target does nothing, other claimants will learn lessons from this initial case and be able to sue more effectively.

I am convinced that over the coming year we will see announcements from Target to say it has improved the website and I would hope it will be able to share a massive business case for accessibility.

The second case is where the National Federation of the Blind and three state employees have filed a lawsuit against Oracle Corp and the state of Texas, seeking to ensure that all applications used by the state government are accessible to blind state workers.

The state of Texas installed a new human resources package from Oracle PeopleSoft. The selection process did not check that the package would be accessible to blind employees. The system that was being replaced had been used successful by a number of employees and managers with vision impairments. With the new system a blind employee cannot update or even view their own records without help from a sighted colleague. Even more seriously a manager cannot view the records of his direct reports without help from a third party. This obviously causes serious privacy and confidentiality issues.

Undoubtedly, these cases are not good publicity for any of the defendants and will require executive time and effort to resolve. Oracle and Target happen to be in the spotlight, but it could easily have been another enterprise or supplier of IT solutions.

Every enterprise and supplier must recognise they could be next. They should also recognise that retrofitting accessibility is difficult and expensive, and is likely to end up with a sub-optimal solution.

Vendors, in particular, should not wait for a court case before acting. Software vendors, consultants, system integrators and developers should act now before they are:

  • Summarily taken off a short list because the tender requires accessibility as an absolute given.
  • Sued for providing a solution that is not fit for purpose, which might well be much more costly than a breach of the accessibility legislation.
  • Castigated by investors for a lack of corporate social responsibility.

Vendors, if you have a good story to tell, now is the time to make it public so you can steal a march on the competition. If you do not have a good story, now is the time to put a plan in place to resolve the issues. Bloor Research will be happy to help you in either situation. ®

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