Celebrating Access Today: 25th Anniversary Year of the Americans with Disabilities Act

May 27, 2015

Twenty-five years ago, with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), our nation committed itself to the elimination of discrimination against people with disabilities.  The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is proud to play a critical role in enforcing the ADA, working towards a future in which all the doors are open to equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, integration and economic self-sufficiency for persons with disabilities.  In honor of the 25th anniversary of the ADA, each month the Department of Justice is highlighting efforts that are opening gateways to full participation and opportunity for people with disabilities.  This month, we highlight the story of Attorney Tom Ross and his struggle to gain full and equal access to electronic court documents in Orange County, Florida.

Mr. Ross, who is blind, was representing the plaintiff in a case before the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida.  In all civil cases assigned to this court, documents must be filed electronically with the Orange County Clerk of Courts through an electronic case filing (ECF) system.  Electronic documents, websites, and other electronic information (including PDF documents) can be accessible to blind people who use common screen reading technology, which reads electronic documents aloud.  However, the electronic information must be formatted to be accessible for the screen reader, which can be done using common software programs. 

Unfortunately, many of the documents in Mr. Ross’s case were filed in an inaccessible PDF format.  And despite his multiple requests, the Clerk of Courts failed to provide Mr. Ross with an accessible version of these documents for 14 months.  For example, at least one of the defendant’s motions in Mr. Ross’s case included over twenty exhibits, the majority of which were not accessible until defense counsel finally agreed to provide them in an accessible format four months after the original filing.  Even after Mr. Ross began to receive most of defendant’s filings in an accessible format, all court orders remained in an inaccessible format to Mr. Ross for another year or more.  These barriers limited Mr. Ross’s ability to practice his profession and represent his client.  They also impacted his relationship with the judge presiding over the case and opposing counsel, both of whom refused Mr. Ross’s requests for accessibility.

Soon experiences like Mr. Ross’s will become a thing of the past.  Last summer, the Justice Department reached a settlement with the Orange County Clerk of Courts to ensure that the Clerk of Courts will provide individuals with disabilities, like Mr. Ross, with any document in the court record in an accessible format upon request.  The agreement also ensures that the Clerk of Courts’ website and ECF system are made fully accessible to individuals with disabilities, including blind individuals, in accordance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA, available at http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20/.

Now 10 months into implementation of the three-year agreement, we are pleased to report that the Clerk of Courts has worked closely with the department to ensure equal access to court documents and other services of the Clerk of Courts for people with disabilities, including making significant improvements to their website and internal policies and procedures.  The Clerk of Courts also paid $10,000 in damages to Mr. Ross and completed training on the ADA and WCAG 2.0 AA accessibility requirements.  Mr. Ross is gratified to see these changes to the Clerk of Court’s website and procedures, enabling him and other blind individuals to access court documents they need to practice their profession or participate in cases in which they are a party.  Access to court documents is critical to ensuring full and equal access to the courts—a right fundamental to our justice system.

Under Title II of the ADA and its implementing regulations, state and local government entities, such as the Orange County Clerk of Courts, are required to make their programs, services and activities accessible and to ensure their communications with qualified individuals with disabilities are equally effective as their communications with people without disabilities.  The official court record is a program, service, and activity of the Clerk of Courts.  Those interested in finding out more about this settlement or the obligations of state and local government entities under the ADA may call the Justice Department’s toll-free ADA information line at 800-514-0301 or 800-514-0383 (TDD), or access its ADA website at www.ada.gov.  ADA complaints may be filed by online at http://www.ada.gov/complaint/.

Thomas Ross

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Updated September 9, 2016