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

Three Illinois companies are accused of maintaining websites visually impaired consumers allegedly can’t use in an age when online shopping is as important as walking into a store.

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.

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.

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.

Representatives from Kmart and Oak Brook-based Ace declined to comment. Empire, based in Northlake, did not respond to requests for comment.

Reed was unavailable for comment, but her attorney, Marc Dann, said the issue is bigger than just the three retailers.

“The big picture here is that as commerce shifts from brick-and-mortar buildings to the web, access to visually impaired people becomes … just as important as the ability to walk into a store,” he said.

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.”

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