Polk County cities are caught in nationwide trend to remove online material that can’t be fixed to accommodate visually impaired.
LAKELAND — City Clerk Kelly Koos has received phone calls lately from residents complaining that they couldn’t find campaign documents or other archival material on the city’s website.
“I have been hearing, ‘Where’d that go? Where’d that go?’ ” Koos said. “That’s been frustrating because I feel like the public has just learned that’s where they should go to get information, and now it’s gone.”
Lakeland removed those documents for the same reason the city has taken down a trove of material from its website. The files are not compatible with screen readers, the adaptive technology program used by people with visual impairments.
Many documents routinely posted on government websites, particularly paper documents scanned into Portable Document Format (PDF) files, lack the coding that allows screen readers to translate print into an auditory version.
Lakeland received a letter March 27 from Juan Carlos Gil, a Miami resident. Explaining that he is legally blind and uses a screen reader to understand electronic documents, Gil requested the city’s budget documents for the years 2015 through 2018 and City Commission meeting agendas and related material from 2016 through 2018.
“In addition to the specific documents mentioned here, can you also make the other electronic documents within your site accessible so that they will work with screen readers so I don’t have to take steps to ask for each document in a mail request?” Gil wrote.
Cities and counties across Florida have received similar letters in recent months, either from Gil or a Daytona Beach man, alerting them to sections of their official websites that present difficulties for people who use screen readers. Gil has also filed lawsuits against some municipalities, including Polk County, generally resulting in settlements for small amounts and pledges to upgrade websites.
Lakeland responded to Gil’s letter the same way other municipalities have: City employees have removed many documents because it would be too time-consuming or costly — or outright impossible — to present the documents in a form compatible with screen readers.
In lawsuits against Polk County and other entities, Gil has alleged violations of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Lawsuits involving ADA compliance have surged in recent years. Federal lawsuits alleging discrimination through inaccessible websites totaled 2,258 last year, reflecting a 177% increase from 2017, according to the Seyfarth ADA Title III News & Insights Blog. Florida had the second-highest total with 576 suits.
Some software programs also convert web material into braille characters for special devices used by some people with visual impairments. To accommodate those who are hearing-impaired, websites can include coding that provides text for any non-text material, including charts and graphics, or post on-screen captions to match the words spoken in a video.
Brian Ross, Haines City’s technology management director, said web designers must also consider the challenges of people with dyslexia by avoiding long blocks of text and those lacking fine-motor skills by avoiding too-small online links and checkboxes.
Rule by court
The ADA, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, is considered a landmark in prohibiting discrimination — even unintentional — against those with disabilities. The measure applies to government entities and private businesses and covers a wide range of areas.
In following ADA guidelines, counties and cities must take such steps as ensuring that sidewalks and curbs at intersections are navigable for people who use wheelchairs. Although government entities still cope with such obvious physical impediments, in recent years the focus has also shifted to websites intended to inform the public and provide access to departments.
The ADA did not create an enforcement structure, and it has been up to courts to determine whether websites operated by governments and businesses comply with federal guidelines.
Polk County joined the list of municipalities sued over the issue in September, when Joel Price of Daytona Beach filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Tampa. In the suit, Price cited such examples as the land development division’s flood zone hazardous area map and a document labeled “Hurricane preparedness for people with special needs” as material incompatible with screen readers.
The county settled the lawsuit in February, denying discrimination but paying Price $10,000 and promising to make all online material accessible to screen readers by the end of the year.
“We went through in the fall and pulled down everything that was not statutorily required or mission critical to be on the website to start the process of remediation, to get them back up again,” Polk County spokeswoman Mianne Nelson said. “It’s really tedious to take all of those documents down and have to go through them. In some cases, they’re having to be totally retyped and reformatted to meet the requirement for the ADA.”
Though no Florida law requires cities or counties to create or maintain websites, it has become customary for even small cities to do so. If governments do operate websites, they must ensure that the documents they post are accessible to those with visual impairments — or risk being sued.
As of last November, Gil had filed 175 lawsuits in South Florida, the Palm Beach Post reported. He also served as plaintiff in a successful 2017 lawsuit against Winn-Dixie over its website. An appeal seems headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Gil’s lawyer said.
Responding to the trend, U.S. House members (including former Rep. Dennis Ross of Lakeland) last year sent a letter to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking him to declare that private legal action regarding website accessibility under the ADA is “unfair and violates basic due process principles in the absence of clear statutory authority and issuance by the department of a final rule establishing website accessibility standards.”
The letter urged the Department of Justice to “provide guidance and clarity” on the matter. The department has not yet issued a public response.
Lakeland was incorporated in 1885, and its archives contain written records going back to that year. Until recently, visitors could find copies of handwritten minutes from City Commission meetings on the city’s website.
Now, it takes a trip to the Lakeland Public Library and a search through the microfilm collection to view such archival records.
Those documents are typically scanned and saved as traditional PDF files, in a format essentially the same as a photo. That presents a problem for screen readers.
The programs’ software relies on hidden formatting, known as “metadata” or “tags,” containing information that can be presented as spoken words. Traditional PDFs offer no hidden material for the programs to read.
Newer versions of the software developed by Adobe Systems, referred to as “PDF/A,” are compatible with screen readers. The upgraded format is often described as “searchable” because users can search words or phrases in documents.
The World Wide Web Consortium, an international organization, released its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, known as WCAG 2.0, in 2008 and issued an update last year. The U.S. Access Board, a federal agency, has adopted many WCAG recommendations as rules in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and a federal court cited the guidelines as the “industry standard” in the 2017 ruling against Winn-Dixie.
Although much of the material on government websites is not essential, cities and counties are legally obligated to publish certain documents, such as budget hearing announcements, proposed property-tax rates and information related to budgets and procurement. That means the material must appear in a format accessible to all.
Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida-based First Amendment Foundation, said she’s troubled to see cities and counties removing public information over questions of web accessibility. She said citizens have become used to finding most government documents online.
“I think that most of the cities I’ve talked to … they’re trying to do what they can to comply with the ADA and also to provide as much information as they can in compliance with the ADA,” she said, “but this hit a lot of them by surprise and they simply were not prepared, and so now they’re shuffling.”
Lakeland spokesman Kevin Cook said the city a few years ago created the position of ADA specialist and conducted an audit to identify areas of needed improvement. One result was a renovation to the City Commission chamber to make it easier to enter for people using wheelchairs.
The city spent $900,000 last year on changes directly related to ADA compatibility, Cook said.
When Lakeland launched a redesigned website in early 2018, employees purged plenty of material — not necessarily because of concerns about ADA compliance but because the pages attracted few views, Cook said. City staff also recognized accessibility problems with the site and began working to fix those.
The city’s annual “budget book,” comprising hundreds of pages and filled with charts and graphics, presents the greatest challenge, Cook said. In March, the staff removed the budget packages from recent years, and about a week later the city received the letter from Gil.
City Attorney Timothy McCausland raised the issue at the March 31 City Commission meeting, saying online material had been removed in response to a campaign by “ADA crusaders.”
Cook said he learned there is a “cottage industry” of companies specializing in making websites immune from ADA-related lawsuits. The city hired a company to revise two budget books at a cost of about $5,000, he said.
One Florida company, ADA Site Compliance, offers services ranging from “compliance shield” for $99 a year to “accessibility adviser” for $999 a year.
“We work really hard to be accessible, and I really think this exercise is going to make everything better, just like I think (sharing) public records makes government better, the transparency aspect of it,” Cook said.
But the majority of material removed from Lakeland’s websites will never return, he said. In the cases of early, handwritten or typed documents, it would be impossible to post them in a form that could be accessed by screen readers.
“We still want to have material up there to be transparent,” Cook said. “It’s a catch-22 for us. Right now, especially in this litigious age that we’re in and this environment, we decided to take things off rather than leave them on.”
Nelson said Polk County had about 5,000 documents posted online last fall before receiving the letter from the Daytona Beach resident. The staff has since removed about 3,400 of those documents, at least temporarily.
The county bought a software program, CommonLook, to test websites for compatibility with screen readers, Nelson said, and purchased a program to provide closed-captioning for broadcasts on PGTV, the official government channel.
Combining those outlays with training costs, Nelson said the county has spent more than $125,000 this year addressing ADA compliance. Much of that expense will recur as the county must pay annually for software licenses.
The spending is covered by the county’s general budget and did not require approval from the County Commission, Nelson said. The county has also established a team of department heads who meet regularly to discuss ADA compliance.
Winter Haven is the latest local city to be put on notice about its website, having received a letter from Gil on March 25. The Miami resident requested accommodation to review budget documents from 2015 through 2018 and City Commission agendas and related material from 2016 through 2018.
City Clerk Vanessa Castillo responded with a letter, telling Gil she had forwarded his request to Winter Haven’s information technology department and promising to “remain in close communication with you as the City works to fulfill it.”
Castillo wrote that Winter Haven provides a UserWay screen reader on its homepage for use at no charge. Acknowledging that the reader doesn’t work with some older documents, the clerk said city staff is reviewing those files and hopes to have a completely accessible site “in the very near future.”
Bartow City Clerk Jaqueline Poole said she hadn’t yet received any such letter, but the city’s information technology department has been addressing website accessibility for months. In January, the city removed documents that were not compatible with screen readers, including minutes from all previous City Commission meetings.
“If you need something pre-January 2019, they can just contact me and I’ll give it to them in a printed format if I need to,” Poole said.
She said Bartow has hired a company to help with a planned website redesign, and the emphasis will be on making sure all new documents are fully accessible when they are initially posted.
Though Haines City has not yet been targeted over website accessibility, Ross, the technology management director, is familiar with the statewide trend. He said the city began working to make all files fully accessible when it launched a new web design nearly two years ago.
Haines City hired an outside company for some of the work, and the contract stipulated that all web pages had to be compliant with ADA rules. The city is not currently posting City Commission meeting agendas because they typically include documents not compatible with screen readers.
Ross said he has done much of the “remediation” of electronic documents himself. It might take five minutes to add the needed coding to a basic text document, he said, whereas he spent about three weeks fixing problems with the city’s 271-page budget package.
“It’s a tedious process to do, so we’re going through right now training of all our city staff that place documents on the website so they’re all capable of producing it from the beginning,” Ross said, “because it’s a lot easier to produce a document with accessibility from the very beginning than to try to fix it after the fact.”
Polk County Clerk of Courts Stacy Butterfield said her office processes about 9,000 documents each business day. She said she strives to make all records as accessible as possible, but she noted that under rules issued by the Florida Supreme Court, court clerks must accept documents submitted in any format.
That means many documents the office receives electronically are not compatible with assistive-technology programs. The clerk’s office does not convert files into another format before posting them online, Butterfield said.
A Florida Supreme Court ruling requires that all court records be submitted electronically through the Florida Courts E-Filing Portal. Paul Flemming, a spokesman for the Office of the State Courts Administrator, said the Florida Courts Technology Commission issues guidelines for filing and storing records.
Flemming said the commission is considering a recommendation that all documents be filed in PDF/A format but said that preference isn’t driven solely by concerns about accessibility.
Savannah Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers, said the statewide association has not issued “one size fits all” guidelines for clerks to follow. She said court clerks strive to make public records as widely available as possible.
“But it is a question of economics,” she said. “Sometimes it’s very costly and time-consuming to put that archival information and other information that’s not readily readable by screen readers into a format that that type of software can process, so some clerks have chosen to limit what they make available online.”
Butterfield’s office handles a wide variety of records, including filings from criminal and civil cases, real-estate transactions and estate records. She said many people in the legal, law enforcement and business realms count on prompt access to electronic records.
“At the moment, I have elected not to remove any (online) documents, for the main reason of (not) disrupting customer service,” Butterfield said. “This is a large volume of records, and a lot of people rely on those records.”
Butterfield, who has held her position since 2013, said she is committed to making records as accessible as possible and isn’t aware of any complaints her office has received about online records that aren’t compatible with screen readers. If requests come in, she said her staff is willing to convert particular records into a compatible form or even read the content of records aloud.
Butterfield said the issue of accessibility arose last year during discussions of the Florida Clerks & Comptrollers. In response, she ordered her staff to examine all aspects of ADA compliance and she formed a team headed by her information technology department to address any problems.
The office has so far focused on training staffers and buying updated software, Butterfield said.
“Screen readers seem to be the focus, and I understand that, but on the larger scale this is a balancing act of what it’s going to take — what money is going to be required — and with the volume of documents we have, how long is it going to take?” she said. “In the meantime, I want do everything I can to keep these records available.”
Gary White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.