Businesses feel victimized by lawsuits over online accessibility for the blind

When you think about a business being accessible to people with disabilities, you might think of handicap parking spaces, railings and ramps for wheelchairs.

But businesses say they’re being blindsided by lawsuits for an issue many say they didn’t know they had. Their websites don’t work with screen readers used by the blind.

We asked Maryetta Grabowski, who is blind, to show us how her screen reader reads website information aloud to her, enabling her to book rides, get news and shop online.

After a search, the screen reader announces a product she’s looking for, “Vitamin B complex, made in the USA.”

If a website is not formatted to work with a screen reader, a blind person can’t use the site. Grabowski says she usually just lets the company know.

“The more we let them know it’s not accessible, it’s to our benefit,” she said.

But some other blind people across the country, and their attorneys, have filed lawsuits. Last year, 2,285 lawsuits were filed nationwide, according to the UsableNet research team, against banks, hotels, stores and restaurants. The lawsuits are based on a 2017 court ruling that websites fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Once that case came out, the floodgates opened,” said Laura Windsor, an attorney with Williams Mullen who represents businesses being sued over their websites.

But many of the businesses say they didn’t know they weren’t in compliance. And some even feel it’s a shakedown for settlements, which often range from $15,000 to $25,000.

“There are some law firms that genuinely want to do the right thing for disabled individuals,” Windsor said. “Now that said, in every profession, there are always the bad seeds.”

Many of the businesses that have been sued in Virginia are credit unions and small banks.

Lewis Wood, VP of Public Relations and Communications with the Virginia Credit Union League, told us, “I think to some degree they feel they’ve been victimized because it has been an out of state law firm that has targeted our credit unions and community banks.”

Wood says they feel they’re being victimized because the majority of these website lawsuits were filed by one blind man, Keith Carroll, and his attorneys. Other states have seen similar, multiple filings, also by one blind plaintiff residing in that state and their attorneys.

Attorney Scott Ferrell with Pacific Trial Attorneys represents Carroll in his lawsuits. He sent us a written statement responding to the businesses’ concerns.

“Seeking justice for the least among us from those in power is never popular – as the legacies of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy attest. Attack us if you must, but in this battle the disabled community is on the right side of history.”

So why don’t businesses just make their sites compatible with screen readers? Business operators say the Department of Justice has not issued the legal, technical standards websites should meet. Without that standard, they feel vulnerable to more lawsuits.

“We respect the disabled community, we believe they should have access. It’s just a matter of knowing the rules with which to comply,” said David Miles, Senior Vice President of the Virginia Credit Union League.

“There’s an international standard on web content accessibility guidelines but there have been several versions of that: 1.0, 2.0, 2.0 double A,” Miles explained.

However, advocates for people with disabilities say there are common standards.

Steven Traubert, Litigation Director with the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, tells us, “We know there are initiatives, including the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, that most businesses utilize in their web development and has essentially become the industry standard.”

This year, the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill requiring a plaintiff to provide four months written notice before suing a financial institution regarding its website accessibility. Gov. Ralph Northam vetoed the bill last week, saying it “creates arbitrary delays in the administration of justice for individuals with disabilities” and “cannot override the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.”

“This has been the law already for 29 years,” Traubert said. “So when we hear from folks who might bring up we haven’t had time, the question becomes what have you been doing with the last 29 years?”

Now, businesses say they fear more lawsuits. But some visually impaired people fear they’re being left in the dark.

In the meantime, attorneys say they advise businesses to at least make their websites compatible with the most common screen reading standards in their industry to help protect themselves from lawsuits and to serve the blind community.

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