Entry 682: Blind Justice

It’s possible that some readers are going to think I hate blind people.

Not too long ago, I wrote about “descriptive videos” for the visually-impaired that include audio descriptions of what’s happening on the screen. I noted at the time a few reasons why the concept didn’t really work, especially when used for pornography.

And now I hear about a recent Florida court ruling against Winn-Dixie supermarkets in which a federal judge ruled that, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, any “brick and mortar retailer” who operates a web store has to make the same “public accommodation” on their website. The plaintiffs in the case argued that items on the website such as specials and coupons were not accessible to them because they couldn’t see them.

The ruling effectively means that websites must be compatible with screen-reading software that converts the written word into voice. That can cost a business $37,000 or more, which could be problematic for Larry of Larry’s Lizards, who has a small storefront in one of the seedier sections of Miami but gets most of his revenue from his SnakeShack.com website.*

While it remains to be seen how much visually-impaired folks will benefit from this ruling, it has already been quite profitable for the morally-impaired.

Lawyers.

Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed. One attorney–Jeffrey Gottlieb–has filed at least 26 cases on behalf of two clients, Steven Matzura and Lawrence Young, against such companies as Warby Parker, Stu Leonards (a local supermarket chain), Sephora, Mac Cosmetics and others.

I don’t want to imply that the plaintiffs in these cases are just in it for the cash. After all, why shouldn’t two men have full access to websites that sell cosmetics even though they can’t see how the eye shadow looks on them? But according to an article entitled “Avoiding the Website Accessibility Shakedown:”

“…a growing number of plaintiffs’ firms have been sending demand letters to various companies, including banks, alleging that people with disabilities are denied access to online goods and services in violation of ADA. The letters seek an out-of-court settlement, injunctive relief and attorney’s fees and costs.”

I can’t find any information on the average settlement that blind people are getting in these cases, but the lawyers are getting legal fees of up to $25,000 or more per case, which is a nice haul for simply sending off a letter.

Admittedly, though, I know little about the law, other than that the world could get along very nicely with a whole lot fewer lawyers. So I do have some questions about this:

  1. If a brick and mortar retailer has to make the same “public accommodation” on their website, I’m assuming we’re not only talking about accommodating people with visual impairments. So how does a restaurant that is wheelchair accessible install ramps on its website?
  2. I don’t frequent supermarkets a lot, but when I have, I haven’t noticed many accommodations for the visually-impaired, unless the bumps on lychees are actually Braille. So if they’re required to make the “same accommodations” on the website, shouldn’t that be nothing?  I guess a lawyer could say that the accommodation at the store is that there are people to ask about coupons and such, but, by that token, couldn’t the blind person call the store and ask?
  3. What type of website accommodation could one of the defendants, Warby Parker, a purveyor of eyewear, possibly make? Even if it was compatible with screen-reading software, how would that help? Wouldn’t a blind person still need someone else to be present to say, “Oh, those would look good on you”?
  4. Why is this ruling only being applied to websites? Shouldn’t, say, the Eddie Bauer catalog be required to publish a Braille edition? Shouldn’t billboards for injury lawyers be required to shout their messages to everyone who drives by? (“Hey, you! If you get in an accident, possibly because you’re a blind person driving a car, call me: 1-800-SHYSTER.”)

Some companies are fighting these suits on various grounds, including the argument that the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t apply to websites. That’s kind of weak in my opinion, since the ADA was enacted in 1990, a year before the very first website (pictured at left) went live. It would be like passing a law in 2005 banning presidents from using Twitter. Some things you just can’t anticipate.

And the ADA actually covers stuff that didn’t exist when it was passed…sort of.  Under Title III, “all new construction (construction, modification or alterations) after the effective date of the ADA (approximately July 1992) must be fully compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines.” In other words, these lawsuits are basically saying that a website is “new construction.” I hope all these businesses are making sure their websites meet local fire codes.

In conclusion, let me reiterate that I really don’t hate blind people, or anyone else with a physical impairment. But I do think there should be a reasonable limit to how far businesses have to go to accommodate every single type of person in the world.

And also–and I really can’t emphasize this enough–there are way too many lawyers.

See you soon.

*There is a provision in the ADA that balances the cost of compliance vs. the financial wherewithal of the business in question, so it’s possible that Larry would be exempt.
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