Via the New York Times:
On Dec. 13, a blind Manhattan resident named Henry Tucker filed federal lawsuits against 10 art galleries, saying their websites were not accessible to people who could not see. The galleries’ names included Adam Baumgold Fine Art, Adelson, Agora, Albertz Benda and Acquavella.
For decades, lawyers for the disabled have used the Americans With Disabilities Act to force businesses to make their spaces more physically accessible, by adding ramps, widening doorways or lowering countertops.
But the steady migration of commerce and culture to the internet has given rise to a new flood of litigation, over the accessibility of websites to the visually impaired. The number of such lawsuits nationwide nearly tripled in 2018 over the year before.
The businesses being served with website-access lawsuits include moving companies, colleges, insurance companies, sightseeing tours, restaurants and yoga studios. Representatives of practically every sector of the economy have been called to task, from the fashion company Anna Sui to Playboy.com to SoulCycle to Zachys Wine Auctions.
Over 10 days in December and January, one plaintiff, Mr. Tucker, took letters A through H, and another man, working with the same lawyers, tackled the rest.
Depending on one’s perspective, the suits are either salvos for civil rights or a way for lawyers to scrape the internet for a quick paycheck.
Most lawsuits are quickly settled, with the visually impaired plaintiffs earning a few hundred dollars per lawsuit and their lawyers pocketing thousands in legal fees.
“It’s blackmail, that’s really what it is,” said Mark Borghi, the owner of Mark Borghi Fine Art, who was sued in the “M” batch.
Motives notwithstanding, the lawsuits expose what advocates for the blind say is a real problem: Many websites remain unusable to the visually impaired, even if those people equip their devices with software and hardware adapted for that use.
“Think about your own daily life and how much you use the internet,” said Chris Danielsen, the director of public relations at National Federation of the Blind, and a blind person himself. “And then imagine almost every day you encountered something that you literally could not do.”
According to advocates, a website could make itself accessible by providing narrated descriptions of what is on the screen or by working with software that does so. An accessible site could also be compatible with a device that turns text into Braille by raising and lowering arrangements of small dots. Federal government websites use what’s called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, but those guidelines are not mandated for private companies.
At least 2,258 website accessibility cases were filed in federal courts last year, almost three times the number filed in 2017, according to the survey conducted by Seyfarth Shaw. About two-thirds of the cases, 1,564 of them, were filed in New York. Florida, a distant second, saw 576 suits.
“The landscape is looking rather bleak for defendants,” said Minh N. Vu, a partner at Seyfarth and the head of the group that conducted the survey.
Businesses that are sued typically react by making their websites accessible, to avoid the expense of a long and possibly futile court battle. Because the disability law says defendants can be liable for plaintiffs’ legal fees, the businesses also usually negotiate a cash settlement to get the case dropped to avoid a massive legal bill.
Gallery owners say they expect to reach settlements of about $10,000 to $15,000 each.
Lawsuits remain a crucial way to ensure the disabled have access to the world around them, their advocates say; and having settlements cover attorneys’ fees means that people without tens of thousands of dollars to spare can hire a lawyer. But some advocates fear that giant batches of lawsuits, filed in quick succession and then settled confidentially, may do more harm than good, even if they get individual websites to change their practices.
“Drive-by lawsuits,” as critics often call them, have been an issue dating back to the 1990s, when they were more focused on physical access to buildings. A recent bill called the ADA Education and Reform Act would have required a written complaint and given businesses a grace period to begin necessary fixes before they could be sued. It passed the House in the last Congress, mostly with Republican support. But it was vigorously opposed by the National Federation of the Blind because, a spokesman said, it made it more difficult for the disabled to get their needs addressed. The Senate did not take up the bill.
“Even people who are born totally blind live in a visual culture,” Ms. Kleege said. “It’s a social justice issue in terms of inclusion. People need to have access to cultural institutions as much as to other institutions.”
Indeed, Eve Hill, a disability-rights lawyer who often represents the National Federation of the Blind, said there are plenty of blind and visually impaired people who want to buy art.
“Blind people put art on their walls, too,” Ms. Hill said. “Too often for the same reason sighted people do: It goes with the furniture.”