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President George H. W. Bush, center, signs the Americans with Disabilities Act on the South Lawn of the White House on July 26, 1990. Photo: Barry Thumma.

New York Galleries Sued for Alleged Violations of Americans with Disabilities Act

More than seventy-five New York galleries are facing lawsuits over the accessibility of their websites, Eileen Kinsella of Artnet reports. The wave of recent complaints targeting the art world, including blue-chip galleries such as Gagosian and David Zwirner, allege their websites are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because they are not accessible to the blind and visually impaired. At least thirty-seven of the suits were filed by one person, Deshawn Dawson, a legally blind resident of Brooklyn.

According to the Los Angeles Times, nearly five thousand similar lawsuits were filed in federal court in the first six months of 2018, and an analysis by the law firm Seyfarth Shaw estimates that the number of suits will double by the end of the year. The findings indicate a 30 percent increase from 2017. CVS, Domino’s Pizza, and Harvard University are among the thousands of restaurants, businesses, and universities that have been slapped with complaints.  

The ADA was signed into law by former president George H. W. Bush on July 26, 1990. It was conceived as a comprehensive civil rights law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability. While it requires “newly designed and constructed or altered State and local government facilities, public accommodations, and commercial facilities to be readily accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities,” it unsurprisingly does not clarify how the ADA applies to the internet since the first website did not go online until later that year—Google.com didn’t exist until 1996.

In order to be compliant, a website needs to be coded in such a way that it can be rendered into text so that a screen-reading software can create an audio translation for users. Since the federal government has failed to provide standards, the Web Accessibility Initiative has created its own, called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

The Justice Department had initially announced that it would work to draft ADA regulations for the web in 2010; however, the Trump administration halted the effort at the end of 2017, claiming that it would first evaluate whether “promulgating regulations about the accessibility of web information and services is necessary and appropriate.” The department’s backpedaling on its promise to deliver guidelines is widely viewed as the reason for the surge in lawsuits.

“What’s particularly frustrating is that a lawsuit like this has the potential to be devastating for some galleries,” Maureen Bray, executive director of the Art Dealers Association of America, told Kinsella. Bray recently held a seminar to address galleries’ concerns over the issue. According to experts, the different formats used to feature fine art on the web may make the process of updating galleries’ websites more costly than it would be for other types of businesses. 

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