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POLK COUNTY – In 2018 and through much of 2019, hundreds of lawsuits were filed against Florida counties, municipalities and corporations alleging that disabled residents did not have equal access to government and corporate administered websites.

The litigation alleged that blind residents could not read documents on government websites and deaf residents could not listen to public hearings posted online, for example.

Litigation was filed against Polk County in September 2018 by a Daytona Beach resident named Joel Price, who is blind, alleging that he was considering moving to Polk County and had concerns about accessibility to the county website.

According to other media outlets, Price has filed many similar cases, each time alleging he was considering moving to that area and had concerns about government websites.

A Miami resident named Juan Carlos Gil, who is also blind, subsequently mailed letters to the cities of Lakeland and Winter Haven threatening similar legal action.

In January 2019, Polk County Risk Manager Mark Thomas signed a settlement with Price for $10,000 with a promise to start making changes to the county website. According to Polk County Public Information Officer Mianne Nelson, county staff have been working hard ever since to make sure disabled residents have equal access to information on the county website.

“To date, more than 5,000 documents have been removed from our websites, about 440 have been remediated to meet ADA standards and remain, with another 170 documents to either be removed or remediated by Dec. 7, 2019, the day we anticipate our 'go live' with our new main website.” Nelson said.

Many changes have already taken place. For instance, many county documents online are already embedded with information that can be converted to speech or translated to braille. PGTV has been broadcasting public hearings online with closed captioning since March, Nelson said.

While the 2018 litigation has resulted in quite a bit of action by county staff, a judge in Miami recently ruled that one such case was frivolous and barred the attorney in that case from filing any further cases that were similar.

In that case, a Miami resident who is deaf was represented by Miami attorney Scott Dinin — the attorney who also helped Price sue Polk County — and alleged that videos on gas pumps were not embedded with closed captioning.

On August 23, United States District Judge Paul Huck ruled that such litigation cases are legally moot and referred Dinin to the Florida Bar for investigation of wrongdoing and peer review. Huck described cases like this as an “illicit enterprise” to “dishonestly line their pockets with attorney's fees from hapless defendants under the sanctimonious guise of serving the interests of the disabled community.”

Dinin was alleging sharing settlement money with his clients, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to other media reports.

Haines City Technology Management Director Brian Ross said that while one of the cases had been thrown out, and while Dinin may have acted unethically, compliance on this issue remains unresolved in the courts.

“While this turn of events has stopped the current onslaught of lawsuits, it does not change the legal requirements nor does it prevent someone else from picking up the torch and continuing the effort to push for accessibility as long as they do it in a legal and ethical way,” Ross said.

According to other media reports and inquiries by the Sun, in the months that followed litigation against Polk County government, county staff and staff working for the cities of Winter Haven, Lakeland, Bartow, Haines City and Lake Wales have been working hard to make sure disabled residents have equal access to government documents.

Winter Haven Assistant to the City Manager Donna Sheehan said changes have already been made to the city website that utilize third party programs to help disabled residents get equal access online.

Bartow City Clerk Jacki Poole said city staff are preparing to sign a contract with a company to help the city update its website. Bartow Information Technology Manager Frank Canovaca said the City of Bartow website should be updated within four to six months after the contract is signed.

Lake Wales City Clerk Jennifer Nanek said changes have already been made to the city’s website, with more changes to come. City memos in agenda packets can now be read using third party programs that disabled residents can use and commission meetings streamed online already are embedded with closed captioning.

“I have a screen reader on my computer, so no new documents are posted to the website without at least some accessibility,” Nanek said. “I am learning what works and what doesn't.”

Haines City staff were working on this issue as early as 2016 and have continued to improve their website to ensure compliance, Ross said.

The changes have come with some unintended consequences, too.

Prior to the flurry of litigation, members of the public had online access to thousands of pages of documentation government staff used to make various decisions every year. In the aftermath of litigation, many websites no longer post that backup information online.

Those interested must now request that information on a case-by-case basis, making it a bit harder to monitor government action.

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Contact Charles A. Baker III at cbaker@d-r.media.

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