On February 19th, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed a complaint in California Superior Court against the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) alleging that the LSAC’s website is inaccessible to blind users (National Federation of the Blind v. Law School Admissions Council Inc., No. RG-09436691, Alameda Co., Calif., Super. Ct.). The NFB’s California affiliate and Deepa Goraya, a blind law school applicant, are also named as plaintiffs in the suit. At issue is whether the LSAC is in violation of two California civil codes: The Disabled Persons Act and the Unruh Civil Rights Act. According to the full text of the complaint,
Lsac.org is currently the only place online where prospective law students can register for the Law School Admissions Test (“LSAT”), apply to law schools, and obtain official LSAT test preparation materials and information. Lsac.org contains multiple access barriers that make it difficult if not impossible for blind law school applicants and LSAT test takers to use the website and to obtain practice materials without sighted assistance. LSAC thus excludes the blind, including Ms. Goraya, from full and equal access to the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of lsac.org.
While the complaint does not list specific Web accessibility problems, it does mention three general barriers for lsac.org users who access the site with a screen reader:
- “lack of or improperly labeled form controls” (i.e. screen reader users may have difficulty entering data into an online form if the form’s fields are improperly labeled in the source code);
- “faulty keyboard navigation” (i.e. screen reader users, who rely on the keyboard to navigate the Web, may have difficulty moving around a site if the source code does not properly label headings, images, links, etc.)
- “tables and charts that are not formatted for accessibility” (i.e. screen reader users may have difficulty decoding or finding information in a table — especially complex tables that include header rows, header columns, and multiple data cells — if the table’s cells are not properly labeled in the source code).
In addition, the complaint alleges that the pdfs on the LSAC website are not properly tagged for screen reader access, and the site’s forty practice tests are not available in alternative formats such as Braille. As a result, Deepa Goraya, according to the complaint, had to rely on a human reader “for over 50 hours simply to read aloud the content of the website and complete her law school applications.”
In the two days since the NFB filed a lawsuit against the LSAC, the NFB’s 600-word press release about the suit (disseminated via PR Newswire) has been reprinted verbatim on at least nine other websites, including Yahoo!, Forbes, AOL, and CNBC. The press release does not mince words; the complaint is presented not as a dispute but as a series of indisputable facts in a sometimes strident voice:
- The press release’s title does not allege or contend that discrimination occurred (i.e. to be determined by the court) but asserts it directly: “LSAC Discriminates Against Blind Law School Applicants.”
- The press release implies that the defendant, unlike the plaintiffs, was unwilling to resolve the matter outside the court system: “The plaintiffs have attempted to meet with the LSAC to resolve the matter, but the LSAC canceled a planned meeting.”
- The press release moves very quickly from a language of uncertainty and openness in the first paragraph (“The complaint asserts,” which invokes a two-party disagreement over facts) to a language of pure fact (“The LSAC Web site contains accessibility barriers including improperly formatted online forms, tables and charts that cannot be read by screen access software, and faulty keyboard navigation support”). By leaving out qualifiers such as “according to the complaint,” the press release leaves no room for dispute, even though a dispute is presumably what the complaint — indeed, every complaint filed in court — is all about.
- The press release includes a very stern warning from the president of the NFB, which ends with these two sentences: “The National Federation of the Blind will not sit quietly while the LSAC willfully refuses to provide the same services to blind people seeking admission to law school that it does to the sighted. The LSAC is engaging in blatant discrimination against the blind and we will not stand for it.” In this way, the LSAC is presented as an evil antagonist who engages in intentional discrimination against a group of noble and brave protagonists who are fighting for what’s right.
With this short analysis I do not mean to suggest that the press release should have included a rebuttal from the defendant or have been written with a greater level of uncertainty. I also do not mean to suggest that the accessibility problems described in the lawsuit won’t ultimately come to be called facts later on. The NFB may turn out to be right to have treated the suit’s contentions as facts. I also fully understand what a press release is intended to do — and this one presents the NFB’s side in clear, strong terms. Here’s my concern: Since the press release has already been reprinted a number of times, in its entirety, on news websites, do news outlets have a responsibility to present the complaint as a two-sided dispute as opposed to a one-sided critique of the LSAC? The press release raises too many unanswered questions that only a balanced news article could begin to address, such as: Why did reps from the LSAC cancel that meeting? Are they really as uncooperative, callous, and evil as the press release implies? Have they been working to resolve the accessibility issues described in the complaint? Do they agree that the accessibility barriers described in the complaint actually exist? Put simply, are these really the indisputable facts of the case?
I’ve only been able to find two articles — both from law websites — that seek to balance the NFB’s press release with the defendant’s perspective, and, I would argue, present the complaint in more objective, less incendiary terms. In “Blind law student sues Law School Admissions Council over accessibility,” an article from law.com, the NFB’s perspective still frames the article, but the lawsuit — and by implication the dispute itself — comes to occupy a more prominent role. For example, the title of the article stresses the suit as the main action. Moreover, paragraphs two and three open with “The lawsuit” and “The lawsuit’s claims,” respectively. As a result, the focus is placed not on a set of presumably indisputable facts but on a pending case with pending facts. Paragraph four and five situate the NFB’s current lawsuit in terms of previously successful complaints by the NFB against Target Corp. and Apple Inc. These references to previous cases rhetorically bolster the credibility of the plaintiff (since the suits are described as successful) but they also bring greater attention to the plaintiff as a party in a two-party dispute. After including a direct quote (culled from the NFB’s press release) from the president of the NFB in paragraphs six and seven, the article ends with a response to the lawsuit from the general counsel for the defendant: “The [LSAC] is disappointed that the federation chose to litigate ‘when we fully expected to address their concerns through productive meetings.’ [The general counsel] also said the [LSAC] has been working on setting up a meeting at the federation’s offices ‘so they could demonstrate new assistive technologies that we’d like to learn about.'”
The defendant’s lawyer humanizes the LSAC by presenting it as a cooperative agency eager to work with the NFB to address the NFB’s accessibility concerns. Instead of discussing that “canceled” meeting which precipitated the lawsuit (according to the NFB’s press release), the counsel for the LSAC reports that the defendant was in fact “working on setting up a meeting.” A somewhat different story seems to be emerging here. In “Advocacy Group for Blind Sues Law School Admissions Council,” an article from ABAjournal.com, the defendant’s story gets an even fuller treatment. More than half of the 379-word article is devoted to the defendant’s response:
The press release says the advocacy group decided to sue after the LSAC canceled a meeting. However, the LSAC says it was ready to resolve the situation, and has made substantial progress in revising its website, with a new launch planned in about two months.
“While we usually do not comment on pending lawsuits, we are doing so in this case because we are disappointed that the federation chose to litigate when we fully expected to address their concerns through productive meetings,” says a spokesperson for the LSAC in an e-mailed comment to the ABA Journal.
“In point of fact, for the past two years LSAC has been working on an extensive redesign of every aspect of the interactive part of our website, with the launch planned for April 25, 2009. A usability consultant has been working in-house advising the developers on accessibility and other usability considerations throughout the design process,” the statement continues.
“It is true that the initial meeting was postponed (not canceled) due to an unplanned business matter that required key staff to be out of the country for an extended period. They have now returned and were attempting to set another meeting at the federation’s offices so that the federation could demonstrate new assistive technologies to help us extend our knowledge in this area.”
In this statement, the spokesperson for the LSAC describes that planned meeting as “postponed,” not “canceled.” Moreover, the LSAC is described as fully expecting to have “productive meetings” with the NFB, making “substantial progress” on an “extensive redesign” of the website, working with a “usability consultant,” and planning a “new launch” of the website.
This second account of the LSAC’s rebuttal perhaps suffers from the same problem that plagues the NFB’s press release: a lack of balance and objectivity. But when I read this second account in concert with the NFB’s press release, I got a better understanding of the issue, the perspectives of the two parties, and how they have tried to resolve their dispute.
The word is spreading quickly about the NFB’s lawsuit. To date, the NFB’s press release is dominating the rhetorical landscape — indeed, the one-sided press release is passing for objective news on a number of general news sites. While I sympathize with the NFB’s lawsuit, I also believe that when it’s being presented to the public as news it needs to be put in the context of, well, a pending lawsuit, as opposed to the sometimes strident tone of the press release with its facts that are presumably (but falsely) beyond dispute. That tone may have the unintended consequence of alienating the sighted public. While our news stories are always going to be framed by the interests and ideological filters of the journalists and their media organizations, they should also strive to present both sides. In this perfect world, the NFB’s press release would be combined with an LSAC interview to provide a fuller, more balanced account of the complaint for the public.
It’s still early in the game and I eagerly look forward to reading what happens next.