ADA lawsuit – a leading indicator

June 21st, 2007

I went to a really useful lawyer’s education panel yesterday courtesy of the San Francisco Bar Association on “2006 Hot Topics in Business Law”. The panel was a Matrix-style download of a year’s worth of legal developments jammed into my brain in the course of an hour and had numerous great nuggets.

One of the biggest, I thought, was the status of a case called National Federation for the Blind v. Target. It is still at a preliminary stage, but the results could be game-changing and to my mind it is a harbinger of ideas to come regardless of how the case itself turns out.

The National Federation claims that the website fails to adequately incorporate technology to help blind users shop on the site. Wikipedia does a good job describing the basic technical details.

Last fall the case survived a motion to dismiss by Target on the grounds that the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t apply because the site is a mere adjunct to Target’s physical stores and 800 number. The court found that the ADA can apply equally to web sites, regardless of the existence of physical stores. The case is now being certified as a class action and will wend its slow way through the courts.

If the court ultimately rules in favor of the plaintiffs, the outcome could be huge. The result could not only mean that potentially a huge number of web sites must accommodate blind users, but also every other condition covered by the ADA as well.

The chances of this happening are hard to gauge currently. However, my own view is that alternative-access concerns are going to become more prominent as the Internet gets more fundamentally integrated into daily life. Smart businesses will start thinking about these ideas early to avoid playing catchup later on.  I once worked on a technology platform that had to be abandoned after $100M+ had been poured into it just because the software couldn’t be made Y2K compliant, so I am sensitive to the importance of planning ahead.

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