Corporations, the Marketplace, and Consumers with Disabilities – Part One

Corporations, the Marketplace, and Consumers with Disabilities – Part One

By Cheryl Heppner

Editor: Here’s Cheryl’s coverage of the TDI Keynote address, presented by Deborah Kaplan, the Director of Accessible Technology at the California State University (CSU) system.

This is part one of four parts.

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Here’s Part One

Here’s Part Two

Here’s Part Three

Here’s Part Four

Deborah Kaplan was introduced by Claude Stout, the executive director of TDI. She graduated in 1976 from the Law School at the University of California at Berkeley. Then she went to Washington, DC, where she set up the Disability Rights Center. She worked there for a while, and then moved back to California in 1980 to pursue a career in disability public policy in the nonprofit sector. She was Executive Director of the World Institute on Disability for eight years, and then she decided to go into consultant work. The previous week, she accepted a new position with the California State University System.

History with TDI

I have worked with TDI for a very long time, on public policy issues in Washington, DC and around the country and really appreciate the voice that TDI has. I also appreciate the respect that TDI has as an organization with government and industry, so it’s a major pleasure that I was asked to come and speak this morning.

Claude and I worked together when he was a member of AT&T’s Accessibility and Aging Advisory Panel. I was working for AT&T before taking my new job, so we saw each other pretty frequently. The work that I’ve done throughout my career has been cross-disability work. I want to recognize Neil McDevitt of TDI for his help with a mix-up in files with the PowerPoint for my presentation. TDI has great staff, let me tell you.

I am pleased to have just accepted a position as the Director of Accessible Technology Initiative for the California State University system. My first day at the job was Wednesday down in Long Beach, California, where I’ll be moving. The CSU system is the largest university system in the country. Our accessible technology initiative includes making sure that all of the technology that is purchased by all 23 universities will be accessible, and we’re setting up an accessibility testing lab at Cal State Long Beach. It’s a very exciting job to be coming into, and I hope we’ll have the opportunity to really advance the state of the art of captioning of video files for university purposes.

Strategies to Ensure Technology is Accessible

I’ll talk about the different strategies that advocates use to ensure that technology will be accessible, and then talk more in depth about one of the strategies, which is working in cooperation with corporations to address the needs of the disability marketplace. I’ll finish with some specific recommendations and observations about consumers working with corporations in general, and then specific ideas about what TDI might be able to do.

When people with disabilities have advocated for accessibility, advocates have used several different strategies. First and foremost, we have attempted and succeeded in influencing federal policy, legislation, and regulation, and there are people here, like Karen Peltz Strauss, who are champions in succeeding at that.

There also has been work at the state level on state policy. Litigation is becoming more important, and that’s always been a strategy of disability advocates. And then there’s what I call friendship with the corporate sector. There’s also infiltration, where we become one of them, and market forces.

An Overview

As an overview, to set context, we were successful in getting Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which was one of the first laws of its kind in its breadth and scope, and Section 508, which uses the market force of the federal government to drive accessible technology. Obviously, Title IV of the Americans with Disabilities Act has been an incredible force in setting up all the different forms of relay that people now take advantage of.

The National Council on Disability, which just issued two reports having to do with technology, has a major influence going forward in charting the course. Of course, there’s the Federal Communications Commission Disability Rights Office. There’s the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology. TDI has been a member of that since the very beginning, and Karen Peltz Strauss is one of the major players in making that happen.

Advocates have been somewhat dissatisfied with how effective Section 255 is. Recent complaints filed with the Federal Communications Commission by the American Foundation for the Blind tried to put more pressure on the accessibility of cell phones, and I think people are looking and trying to find ways to make the laws more effective.

At the state level, there are the relay and equipment programs. I know that in California and New York, probably other states as well, people with disabilities have become active in regular telecommunications regulatory proceedings that are not explicitly about people with disabilities because of the importance of telecommunications regulation for people with disabilities who are also, in many cases, low income.

Litigation as a Strategy

Litigation has been a very interesting strategy, sometimes successful, sometimes not. The Target case, dealing with web access for a plaintiff who is blind, is on appeal. There was a very favorable decision from the district court for northern California, and nobody knows whether it will settle or go on appeal to the circuit court. There’s also a new case that was filed by the same advocacy organization, Disability Rights Advocates, which is based here in the Bay Area, against Hotels.com, and I think that there will probably be more litigation on access of the web.

A legal problem that is not settled is whether the ADA covers websites and other technology if there’s no physical location associated with the technology. Some courts have gone one way, some courts have gone the other. It’s pretty frustrating to people who were involved in writing the Americans with Disabilities Act because I think there was always an intention that the ADA would be a forward-looking piece of legislation that would incorporate technology as it became part of our lives. Some businesses have successfully used the fact that the ADA really was passed before the advances in technology became a part of our lives. The ADA doesn’t specifically cover technology. There also have been some interesting settlements with two travel-related web sites filed by the New York state attorney general.

One interesting aspect of the litigation strategy that I wanted to draw your attention to is a strategy used by two Bay Area lawyers, Lainey Feingold and Linda Dardarian. They write a letter to a large business saying “you need to be doing business in a more accessible fashion”, but before they actually file the lawsuit, they will ask the business if they would like to engage in a “structured settlement” process, where there’s a series of negotiations. They bring in experts on accessible technology and work out a settlement before any court action is actually taken.

They have been very successful with several banks and businesses, and they just reached a large settlement with Radio Shack that included web access. It’s an interesting strategy because it uses technology experts to help figure out what the best result is, and results are achieved much more quickly than if litigation happens, which can often take a long time.

Most of the litigation has focused on web access, which often focuses on access for people who are blind or visually impaired, because that’s been the major issue with the web. Access for people who are deaf or hard of hearing will probably become more of an issue as the web has become more of a medium for delivering video Webcasts and digital TV.

Here’s Part One

Here’s Part Two

Here’s Part Three

Here’s Part Four

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