Dear Commons Community,
Eight lawsuits have been filed in federal court in Manhattan over the past two weeks, most recently against Hofstra University on Long Island on Oct. 4. In each case, lawyers for Emanuel Delacruz, who is blind, charged that the college’s website is inaccessible to their plaintiff and therefore in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. As reported by the New York Times:
“The filings are part of a growing number of actions involving accessibility and the internet. The federal law requires that public accommodations be accessible to those with disabilities, and legal battles have long revolved around physical spaces and therefore physical solutions, such as elevators or wheelchair ramps. Now, advocates and lawyers argue, websites are also public spaces and need to be accessible, with things like captions or audio descriptions.
Since January 2015, at least 751 lawsuits have been filed over the issue. The vast majority have focused on retailers and restaurants, according to a legal blog that tracks such suits. Only seven of the suits have been directed at academic websites. Mr. Delacruz’s suits alone doubled that count. And another website, which includes not only lawsuits but also government investigations into web or technological accessibility, lists 37 schools that have been accused of noncompliance with disability law.
Advocates for the deaf sued Harvard and M.I.T. in 2015 for failing to caption online lectures, courses and other educational materials. In 2016, after a complaint by two deaf people, the Department of Justice’s civil rights division found the University of California, Berkeley, had violated disability law by not providing the appropriate accommodations for its own free video lectures and podcasts.
“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.”
If the plaintiff prevails in these cases, colleges will have to do a lot of retooling on all of their web activities.