Blind N.Y. resident sues NU over website accessibility

Maria Lovato, campus editor

On Nov. 15, 2018, Jason Camacho filed a lawsuit against 50 universities across the country, including Northeastern. He alleged that the colleges are violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.

Camacho, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, is blind. In order to browse the internet, he uses a screen reader, which allows visually-impaired individuals to receive the text on the screen through speech synthesizers or braille displays. Camacho claims that he encountered barriers while trying to access university websites with his screen reader.

According to the Northeastern Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion website, Northeastern upholds the ADA. Northeastern’s Vice President of Communications, Renata Nyul, reaffirmed this commitment.

“Northeastern University is committed to ensuring that its digital environments serve the needs of all individuals — including those with disabilities — in accordance with applicable laws,” Nyul said in a Jan. 11 email to The News. “The university does not comment publicly on pending legal matters.”

According to court documents, the barriers Camacho faced included lack of alternative text, which is the text screen readers use to vocalize a description of a graphic or image. Other barriers include interruptions that make browsing the web much more confusing for screen-reader users, including redundant links and empty links that contain no text.

“If you come across text that’s not accessible or unlabeled, the screen reader will just say ‘button,’ instead of something like ‘search bar,’” said Deepinder Goraya, a disability rights attorney based in Washington, D.C. who is blind. “If a website’s not coded properly, you have to get someone else to help you.”

The ADA is a civil rights law passed in 1990 that prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities including vision loss. All schools that receive federal funding are required by law to make all programs at their university, including extracurriculars, accessible to students with disabilities. These accommodations are only exempt if it would “fundamentally alter the nature of the service, program or activity or give rise to an undue financial or administrative burden,” according to the ADA’s training website.

“The law guarantees equal access and opportunity in all parts of public life,” said Lydia X. Z. Brown, a disability justice advocate and recent Northeastern graduate. “This includes being able to go to a restaurant or search the web. All of these are important rights and the law attempts to require our largest public service institutions to follow the law and put their money where their mouth is and make their services available to all, not just those who aren’t disabled.”

The lawsuit also claims that Northeastern is in violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, or RA, which prohibits discrimination based on disability in federally run programs or those receiving federal funding.

The court document states that “is not equally accessible to blind and visually-impaired consumers,” and violates both the ADA and the RA.

Camacho is seeking an injunction with the intent to change the university’s “corporate policies, practices and procedures so that [the university’s] website will become and remain accessible to blind and visually-impaired consumers.”

He is not seeking any monetary or other reparation.

“An injunction is just a remedy to fix the website,” Goraya said. “Part of that is making sure the staff in charge of maintaining the website are trained on how to keep it accessible. It’s also ensuring it remains accessible through updates.”

The ADA was strengthened through an amendment in 2008 which reaffirmed the goals of the original act. Brown said universities have no excuse for not getting their websites up to standards.

“They’ve had almost three decades to come into compliance,” Brown said. “Universities have no shortage of money, they have full time staff and full teams of people working behind the scenes on their website, and yet they still do not think it’s worth the time. It is a shameful reflection of how little they care about people with disabilities.”

Goraya, who specializes in litigation on web and technology inaccessibility, said the reason many universities don’t have their websites up to code is that they simply don’t know why it is so important.

“I think it’s mostly an ignorance issue,” Goraya said. “They don’t understand how blind people access the internet. People who are teaching computer science courses should teach accessibility in their classes. It’s easier to make it accessible from the beginning than to change it later.”

Representing Camacho in these lawsuits is Jeffrey Gottlieb of Gottlieb and Associates, a law firm based in New York. Although Camacho is from New York and the lawsuits were filed there, he claims that since Northeastern and the other schools actively recruit applicants from New York, they can be sued as such.

Camacho also chose to sue 50 schools at once, all with court documents using similar language and regarding the same issue. While Goraya said these sort of “drive-by” lawsuits are generally frowned upon, it could be justified in this case.

“The purpose is to get high impact change. One website is not going to make a huge difference,” Goraya said. “Blind students are applying to colleges all over, not just [Northeastern].”

Click here to view the court documents.