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Governments remaking their websites to serve the disabled. One city went to extremes

In the wake of a lawsuit against Manatee County, the county and other local governments are scrambling to make sure their websites comply with a federal law requiring they be accessible to residents with disabilities.

One city, Bradenton Beach, has gone to the extreme of taking down its website until it can construct a new one.

Manatee County recently settled a lawsuit filed by a resident who argued the county’s website, www.mymanatee.org, did not comply with a portion of the Americans with Disabilities Act that went into effect in January 2018.

The county’s settlement agreement came as a surprise to Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie, a former county commissioner, who issued an executive order to shut down the city’s website, www.cityofbradentonbeach.com on Nov. 1 and it went offline on Nov. 6. It is unclear when the city will have its new site operational.

Bradenton Beach’s decision to restrict digital access to government documents on a temporary basis is an unusual move but not an illegal one.

Matthew Dietz, litigation director for the Disability Independence Group in Miami, said Bradenton Beach isn’t breaking any laws as long as the shutdown affects everyone.

“This is identical to the 1960s when towns would rather shut down public pools instead of integrating them,” Dietz said. “While it was discriminatory to have a public accommodation for whites only, it breaks no law to have the public accommodation open to no persons on any basis.”

Dietz said Bradenton Beach’s decision wasn’t necessary, however.

“Website accessibility is not really difficult,” he said. “They could get into a schedule, and fix it over time, especially where they need to caption videos. Most courts provide a lengthy period of time to come into compliance.”

Manatee County recently paid $16,000 as part of a settlement of a federal lawsuit filed last fall by a disabled resident who could not access electronic content because the county’s website would not integrate with his screen reader software. The county admitted no guilt and denied the allegations but settled the case and went to work in December to begin getting its website ADA compliant.

The Americans with Disabilities Act wasn’t signed into law until 1990. The Internet was in its infancy and the original intent of the law was to ensure everyone had equal opportunity to access businesses, public buildings and move freely in urban settings.

As the Internet began to become a bigger part of the average American’s lifestyle, digital access to government records has become even more important than the physical access. In response, the ADA was modified  to include equal digital access rights.

Nick Azzara, information outreach manager, said the county updated its website last June in an effort to improve user experience for everyone, but the issue arose when the person filing suit attempted to gain access to documents that wasn’t part of the redesign.

Since then, Azzara and his communications staff have been working with the Lighthouse of Manasota, which provides skills training to the blind and vision impaired, to make sure specific needs are being met with the online experience.

“The huge piece of this is the attachments you put on a county website,” Azzara said. “We can have hundreds on our agenda packets. The lawsuit brought to our attention the important changes needed to be made for convenience, transparency and also for the in-house folks who are creating these documents.”

The court gave the county until August to come into compliance and while there is still a lot to figure out on the technical side, Azzara said his staff “has a good plan of attack. I think we will be among the Florida leaders in county government in transitioning our site to being fully ADA compliant.”

In Manatee County’s case, the court gave them nine months, but given the urgency of potential litigation, other local governments are scrambling to get into compliance.

The city of Palmetto upgraded its website in October. Prior to the upgrade, the city’s website was not ADA compliant but it is now, according to Jim Freeman, city clerk.

“There were many benefits to our project and ADA compliance was among those upgrades with the new site,” Freeman said. “It is my understanding that our new site meets the requirements of the ADA standards and is something we will continually improve upon.”

Palmetto did not need to shut down the website to make the upgrades and Bradenton is currently building a new website while keeping the old one operational.

“One of our requirements of our vendor was that our new site be ADA compliant, and that was agreed upon in our contract,” said Jeannie Roberts, the city of Bradenton’s communications coordinator. “We are roughly a month into that four-month process. In the meantime, we have a notice posted on the ADA II/Title VI page of our current site that informs visitors to that page that our new site is coming but also that until it’s done, we remain committed to all visitors having accessibility to our current site.”

Breaking News/Real Time Reporter Mark Young began his career in 1996 and has been with the Bradenton Herald since 2014. He has won more than a dozen awards over the years, including the coveted Lucy Morgan Award for In-Depth Reporting from the Florida Press Club and for beat reporting from the Society for Professional Journalists to name a few. His reporting experience is as diverse as the communities he covers.
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