Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
January 10, 2019 2:00 p.m.
Those accustomed to routinely visiting city websites for information on everything from agendas and minutes to permitting and employment opportunities are about to get a rude awakening. Although cities have taken great pains in recent years to become increasingly transparent to the public, apparently those efforts are proving insufficient to meet the needs of the blind and visually impaired under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). To avoid legal challenges, municipalities around the state have begun removing documents and PDF files from websites until such time as they can either make them accessible or find another legal way to restore public access without violating ADA requirements.
The City of Fernandina Beach has advised that it is in the process of following suit.
According to an article published in the Orlando Sentinel on January 4 entitled “Local governments on alert over lawsuits targeting ADA violations over website documents,” 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 Disability Act. The public now has to either call or visit those city halls to obtain the documents.
It will cost cities thousands of dollars to purchase and install software to make their websites “readable” for people with disabilities. In the meantime, people seeking information formerly available on the city websites will need to call to request that information.
Fernandina Beach City Manager Dale Martin advised this morning that the city has been contacted by a potential complainant to determine if its website is ADA compliant. According to the Orlando Sentinel article, the individual or group behind this effort has filed almost 200 lawsuits in Florida and across the country accusing government agencies, restaurants and stores of violating ADA by not taking steps to ensure that documents on their websites can be accessed by anyone’s personal computers.
Miami resident Juan Carlos Gil, who is legally blind, filed a lawsuit against Winn-Dixie claiming that certain features on their website were not compatible with computer programs he relied upon to use the internet. In June 2017, a federal judge ruled in his favor and ordered Winn-Dixie to comply.
There are wide ranging implications for this development. For example, currently meetings of local government bodies are broadcast without closed captioning. Should that now be required, governments might reconsider such broadcasting for reasons of cost.
The city of Fernandina Beach is in the process of evaluating its options to come into compliance with the ADA while avoiding costly litigation. It is already in contact with the city’s insurer. Until a solution can be found, searching the city’s website to locate documents in agenda packets or archives will probably not yield anticipated results.
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.
This is a developing story with major implications for the public, local government, businesses and news media. We will strive to keep you updated as further actions occur.