By Minh N. Vu
For today’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we have yet another Department of Justice enforcement action to report relating to the allegedly inaccessible websites and other technologies. This time, DOJ is trying to intervene in an existing lawsuit, Dudley v. Miami University, filed by a former Miami University student who is blind. Although the lawsuit is brought under Title II of the ADA which applies to state and local government entities and not public accommodations, the obligations under the Title II and III are very similar. Thus, the DOJ’s position in this lawsuit provides useful insight into how it would treat private universities and other public accommodations covered by Title III of the ADA.
On May 12, 2015, the DOJ sought permission from the court to intervene in the lawsuit as an additional plaintiff. If the request is granted, the lawsuit’s scope will widen. As an individual plaintiff, Ms. Dudley can only seek injunctive relief that relates to her own disability (blindness) and attorneys’ fees. The DOJ, on the other hand, can and is seeking injunctive relief that would benefit people with other types of disabilities such as those who are deaf or hard of hearing. In addition, the DOJ can seek compensatory damages for past and present students who have been harmed, and a civil penalty of up to $75,000.
The DOJ’s action stems from the University’s obligation ensure that its communications with individuals with disabilities is effective. One question we often get is whether a public accommodation is required to ensure that all of its communications with the public are effective, or just those that relate to the core goods and services that the public accommodation offers (e.g, communications by a university to students and prospective students about its courses and programs). Some advocacy groups have taken the position that all material posted on any university website must be accessible for the benefit of the public at large, even if the material is not directly related to any coursework or other programs offered by the school.