This past week saw the development of another web accessibility case in the state of California. The California affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed a lawsuit against the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) on behalf of Deepa Goraya, a blind law school applicant, claiming that the LSAC Web site is inaccessible to the blind.
The LSAC is the organization that administers the Law School Admissions Test, which is required for most students who want to study the law. The lawsuit claims that practice tests and preparation materials provided on the Web site cannot be read by screen reading software, and that PDF files have not been formatted to support access to the blind. The lawsuit further claims that planned meetings to resolve the matter were canceled by the LSAC.
Similar to the NFB v. Target Corp case, we can expect the Plaintiffs to argue that the LSAC’s Web presence is in violation of two California civil codes: The Disabled Persons Act and the Unruh Civil Rights Act. The Plaintiffs claim that the Web site is the only way to apply online to a law school accredited by the American Bar Association, and that failing to provide an accessible alternative discriminates against those who cannot use the site’s features.
For example, the lawsuit claims that previously administered versions of the test are available to sighted users, but unsighted users cannot read them. Deepa Goraya, a named Plaintiff in the suit, claims that she required fifty hours of service from a sighted colleague to complete her law school admissions papers. NFB President Dr. Marc Maurer also has some strong words from the NFB press release:
“The Internet is extremely useful to blind people, as well as our sighted peers, when Web sites are properly formatted according to well-established guidelines; there is no good reason for any Web site offering goods and services to the public to be inaccessible to blind people. For too long, blind people have experienced barriers to entering the legal profession, despite our long history of demonstrated success in that field. The National Federation of the Blind will not sit quietly while the LSAC willfully refuses to provide the same services to blind people seeking admission to law school that it does to the sighted. The LSAC is engaging in blatant discrimination against the blind and we will not stand for it.”
The response from LSAC to accusations of “blatant discrimination” is intriguing. The admissions council, according to general counsel Joan Van Tol, does not usually comment on pending lawsuit. However, the Defendants in the lawsuit made an exception in this case. Van Tol cited disappointment on the part of the LSAC when there were full expectations to address the NFB’s concerns through “productive meetings” where the NFB “could demonstrate new assistive technologies that we’d like to learn about.” An emailed statement to the ABA Journal further commented:
“In point of fact, for the past two years LSAC has been working on an extensive redesign of every aspect of the interactive part of our website, with the launch planned for April 25, 2009. A usability consultant has been working in-house advising the developers on accessibility and other usability considerations throughout the design process. It is true that the initial meeting was postponed (not canceled) due to an unplanned business matter that required key staff to be out of the country for an extended period. They have now returned and were attempting to set another meeting at the federation’s offices so that the federation could demonstrate new assistive technologies to help us extend our knowledge in this area.”
It will be interesting to see how this case plays out. I don’t see the same parallels between NFB v. LSAC and NFB v. Target necessarily coming to fruition, and I agree with blogger Sean Zdenek, who gently questioned the NFB’s domination of the “rhetorical landscape” with a list of complaints presented as indisputable fact.
Web accessibility cases usually come down to a number of factors. One must consider the intent of the governing body distributing the service, as well as the effort required to render that service inclusive to users of all abilities. Then there is the harm being endured by someone who, for whatever reason, comes away with a less than optimal experience. To prove “blatant discrimination,” the onus is on the Plaintiff to discredit accommodation efforts as falling short of what the court deems a reasonable expenditure of time and resource.
All that being said, digital accessibility is a matter of equivalency. If the LSAC is found to have not provided an equivalent experience for blind students hoping to enter law school, then they will be held accountable. Let us not jump to conclusions just yet; we shall see how it unfolds.