College Websites Must Accommodate Disabled Students, Lawsuits Say

College Websites Must Accommodate Disabled Students, Lawsuits Say

“As more and more students are aware of their rights, and as websites have become so much of what universities now focus on, in their marketing materials for example, it’s not surprising to me that there will be an increase in these types of lawsuits,” said Arlene Kanter, director of the Disability Law and Policy Program at Syracuse University’s law school.

Whether the plaintiffs will prevail is unclear. The Americans With Disabilities Act, written in 1990, makes no mention of the internet. The Department of Justice, which enforces the act, has issued guidelines about web accessibility but no formal regulations on how to achieve it — and they seem unlikely to materialize soon, after the federal government in July placed web regulations on its list of “inactive” agenda items.

The question has largely been left to judges, who have ruled both for and against disabled plaintiffs. In March, for example, a California judge dismissed a blind man’s suit against Domino’s Pizza, because the chain offered an option to order by telephone. But in June, a Florida judge ruled that the grocery store Winn-Dixie had to offer the same accommodations on its website as it did in stores, and in July, a judge in Brooklyn ruled that the website for Blick Art Materials had to be readily accessible to a blind man.

The result of these conflicting rulings is a legal gray area ripe for, depending on your viewpoint, either significant civil rights advances or exploitation by lawyers looking to make a quick buck through settlements, said Tom Stebbins, executive director of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York.

Absent clarity from the federal government, Mr. Stebbins said, some lawyers have filed identical lawsuits against multiple businesses or universities in the hopes of reaching a settlement with one or more of them.

“These are cut-and-paste lawsuits,” he said. “You just have these lawyers taking advantage of a good-intentioned law to make money.”

The lawsuits filed in New York on behalf of Mr. Delacruz are “all similar,” his lawyer, Dana Gottlieb, wrote in an email. They state that Mr. Delacruz tried to find information, such as tuition costs, school location and academic calendars, but was unable gain access because the websites were not readable by his screen-reading software.

A hyperlink in one complaint, against Hofstra, opens the website of the College of New Rochelle. According to court records, Ms. Gottlieb was ordered to refile one of the complaints because the wrong party was selected as the defendant.

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Ms. Gottlieb, of the Gottlieb & Associates law firm, declined to comment further or to say anything more about her client, including his age and what he hoped to study. But Jeffrey M. Gottlieb, the founder of the firm, wrote in an email that private lawyers had to step in to promote web accessibility, given the lack of government action.

“When ‘lawsuit-reform’ organizations protest about the nature of these lawsuits, they are only advancing the interests of wealthy corporate interests that fund them,” he wrote. “If they were truly reform oriented, they would advocate for more government intervention to protect the rights of those who most need protection.”

Most of the colleges did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Iona College said that it “takes all matters of discrimination seriously and strives to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and appropriately. The college will continue to ensure everyone has equitable access to its facilities including its website.”

Some disability rights advocates, acknowledging the charges that some lawyers are just looking to cash in, have distanced themselves from the suits.

“We do not condone just filing a blizzard of lawsuits in order to get settlements. That’s not solving the underlying problem,” said Chris Danielson, public relations director for the National Federation of the Blind. His organization has pushed instead for clearer federal guidelines on web accessibility.

Critics have also pointed to the Berkeley case as evidence that the strategy can go awry. After the Department of Justice found the university to be in violation of the disabilities act, Berkeley responded by taking down more than 20,000 publicly accessible videos and audio files, a move administrators had called “unenviable” but unavoidable given the “extremely expensive” cost of compliance.

But disability rights lawyers and advocates said the concerns were misplaced.

“There will always be lawyers who are eager to find business,” Ms. Kanter, the Syracuse professor, said. “But if the university is vulnerable, and if they have violated the law by not providing accessibility, that’s what the role of lawyers should be, which is to monitor such complaints.”

Eve Hill, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, said lawyers could not manufacture plaintiffs out of thin air. Ultimately, she said, lawyers represent people who — regardless of their lawyers’ motivations — are being barred from accessing public services.

“There has to be somebody who is trying to access the website,” said Ms. Hill, who is now a disability rights lawyer. “Imagine if you were that person. Imagine if you were trying to apply to school, and every college you went to check out refused to tell you how.”

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Source : https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/11/nyregion/college-websites-disabled.html

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