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Local Governments on Alert over Lawsuits Targeting ADA Violations over Website Documents

January 8, 2019
Source: Orlando Sentinel (Florida)

The public has long been able to poke around local government websites to keep track of council or commission meetings, look up records or fill out permit applications.

But counties and cities across the state have recently come under legal attack by advocates for [people with disabilities], who say that the electronic information on the public websites is not accessible to people who are deaf or blind.

At least three Central Florida cities — Lake Mary, Longwood and Oviedo — have temporarily removed many public documents from their websites to protect themselves from lawsuits alleging a violation of the Americans with [Disabilities Act (ADA)]. The public now has to either call or visit those city halls to obtain the documents.

“I decided to be very conservative and be cautious with our website — and minimize a legal threat — until we could get it ADA compliant,” Lake Mary City Manager Jackie Sova said about why she directed her staff to remove city agendas and other public documents.

Sova, along with officials in Longwood and Oviedo, say they will re-post the electronic documents on their city’s websites after purchasing software — at a cost of thousands of dollars — that will make it readable for people with disabilities. That process could take months or even years.

“We became concerned and decided to take action to make sure we are complying” with the ADA, Longwood City Manager J.D. Cox said. “We will put them back up, as time allows for our city staff to scan them in.”

Since the ADA was passed in 1990, Florida counties and cities have made sure that their buildings and parks have ramps, handrails, grip bars and doorways to accommodate wheelchair users and people with other disabilities.

But many government officials are now realizing that the federal law, enacted long before the internet became part of most people’s daily life, also applies to the information they make available on their websites for the sake of transparency.

Over the past year, a flurry of lawsuits have been filed in federal courts contending that many of the public documents on government websites and businesses are not completely accessible to people who have problems seeing or hearing. Nearly 2,000 suits were filed in 2018 alleging website accessibility issues for [people with disabilities].

The lawsuits demand that websites should be equipped with software that allows the legally blind to read documents. Deaf people, or the hard of hearing, should have videos with closed-captioning of government meetings, the suits contend.

For example, Daytona Beach resident Joel Price, who is legally blind, recently sent a letter to Altamonte Springs City Manager Frank Martz requesting that the city make available on its website budgets for the past four years and all City Commission agendas, along with backup material, since 2015.

“I depend on a screen reader to help me understand electronic documents,” Price wrote. “My screen reader would not work with your electronic documents.”

Miami resident Juan Carlos Gil, who is legally blind, has filed nearly 200 lawsuits in Florida and across the country accusing government agencies, restaurants and stores of violating the ADA by not taking steps to ensure that documents on their websites can be accessed by anyone’s personal computers.

Gil filed a lawsuit against Winn-Dixie, claiming that features on the store’s website — such as refilling prescriptions and accessing coupons — weren’t compatible with computer programs he relied on to use the internet.

In June 2017, a federal judge ruled in favor of Gil, saying that Winn-Dixie violated the ADA and ordered the grocery chain to modify its website to come into compliance.

Gil couldn’t be reached for comment for this article. However, he told the Palm Beach Post in November that he is “fighting for equality” by filing the lawsuits.

“It’s very disconcerting that it’s now 2018 and websites aren’t accessible to the visually impaired,” he said. “It dismisses a whole population.”

In October, Orange County government settled a lawsuit filed by Gil in which the county agrees to make all its information on its websites accessible to individuals with vision disabilities by 2022. Without admitting to wrongdoing, the county also agreed to pay Gil $19,000 to cover his attorney’s fees and damages.

[Image removed – An image labeled “On Air - Orange TV Live Stream.” shows a man in a military uniform speaking into a microphone at a lectern. Image caption:] Orange TV soon will implement closed-captioning to comply with the ADA. (Orange TV website)

In addition, Orange TV, the county’s government-access channel, will implement closed-captioning in the coming months, county officials said.

“We are taking an aggressive approach with training our team and ensuring our website and content is ADA compliant,” said Kelly Finkelstein, a county spokeswoman.

The Palm Beach County Clerk & Comptroller’s office in September also settled a suit with Gil for $9,500 over the county’s website, according to the Palm Beach Post. In June, the Palm Beach County Commission settled a lawsuit for $15,000 with Miami resident Eddie Sierra, who is deaf, demanding that videos on the county’s websites include closed-captioning.

Seminole County attorneys said they are in the process of completing two settlement agreements involving ADA and the county’s websites. They didn’t provide additional details.

Longwood’s Cox said he and his staff became concerned about the information on the city’s websites after the avalanche of recent lawsuits, including the Winn-Dixie case. Longwood recently purchased software for about $3,500 that will go through all the documents on the website to make sure they are ADA compliant.

The city also will spend about $14,000 to convert old PDF files to a format that is readable for software used by the visually-impaired. In addition, Longwood will provide closed-captioning on live City Commission meetings it posts on Longwood’s Facebook page.

In the meantime, residents can call or email the city to request any documents, such as city agendas, meeting minutes or commission packet materials that are not currently on Longwood’s website, Cox said.

“If anyone asks, we will provide it to them,” he said.

[Image removed – Screen shot of web page for “Agendas and Minutes.” Image caption:] Oviedo has a notice about the ADA issue on its website. (Screenshot of website)

Patrick Kelly, Oviedo’s assistant city manager, said his city is currently shopping for software to make [electronic or computerized] documents — including PDFs — readable for [people with disabilities].

“It will take some time and quite a bit of man hours…to make PDFs ADA accessible,” Kelly said. “We want to make ourselves as open and accessible as possible. But at the same time, we don’t want to be embroiled in a lawsuit.”

Sova said her city is also in the process of purchasing software “to make our website compliant.”

“We’re trying to do the best we can for all of our citizens,” Sova said.

Link: Go to website for News Source
https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/os-ne-ada-lawsuits-blind-local-governments-20190104-story.html


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