NY Times on Legal Action Against Target for Web Accessibility

The NYT has this article on the most current legal action over online accessibility. This time around it is the NFB against Target, with the case claiming Target’s web site is not accessible.
As the article points out, this is really just the latest in a series of legal actions to apply some sort of accessibility standard to the web. The typical question in these cases boils down to whether the web can be considered a place of public accommodation.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was written before the web became the ubiquitous part of society that it is today. That’s unfortunate because it has left room for much ambiguity in this area. Perhaps the legislation should have been stronger in the beginning to allow for more applicability in new circumstances but I think the spirit of the law is obvious—do not exclude parts of society from what you offer.
Whether it is this case or another down the road, I tend to think at some point the ADA or another legal standard will be applied to the web. Today it is mostly government web sites that have a legal obligation to meet accessibility requirements of Section 508 here in the U.S. There are other legal standards in the international arena as well.
Of course the real fun’s going to be determining what constitutes an accessible web site. Here in the target suit you see disagreement over even that basic fact.

The National Federation of the Blind sued Target, contending that the company’s inaction violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because the Web site is essentially an extension of its other public accommodations, and as such, should be easily accessible to people with disabilities.
A Target spokeswoman would not comment on those assertions, but in court the company offered testimony from three blind users rebutting the federation’s arguments.

From my experience pinning down exactly what’s accessible is often a challenge. I’ve successfully purchased items from Target’s online site on several occasions. Does that mean the site’s accessible? I also know of web sites that I’ve not been able to use but know that the reason was attributable to the particular screen reader I was using at the time.
Then too comes in the question of accessible versus usable. It is ironic that the article site’s Amazon’s “accessible” option here as an example of a company doing the right thing.

Amazon, she added, “is already generally usable for people with screen readers.” It has offered a text-only, streamlined site designed for such devices (amazon.com/access).

Ignoring the entire question of having a separate site for accessibility, opening the referenced Amazon.com web page one can quickly find a basic accessibility issue that violates any known standard on accessible web design. Specifically, the edit box used for entering search terms is missing the HTML title or label tag. These are used to give the box a menaingful name for screen readers and other assistive technology. Today this box reads simply as “edit” to a screen reader.
Now does this make the site inaccessible? By definition one could probably say yes. That said, the page is clearly usable. If there were multiple edit boxes on this same page, the missing labels could become quite a problem though.
What about user skill and knowledge? What level of familiarity with the web , access technology and such should be expected when considering accessibility and usability?

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