By Rich Pollack
When Highland Beach residents tuned into their local public access channel or logged on to the town’s website late last month expecting to see live video streaming of the Town Commission workshop, they discovered they were no longer able to watch the meeting in progress.
A technical glitch maybe?
Not quite. Instead, the decision by the town to temporarily stop live-streaming meetings turned out to be a precautionary move to avert legal action for not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Other affected South Palm Beach County cities include Lake Worth and Delray Beach.
The act, it turns out, requires governments to ensure that website content and other content provided to the public be accessible to people with disabilities, including those who have trouble hearing.
“The goal is to make sure there is accessibility to video and audio content for people who are hard of hearing or deaf,” said Miami attorney J. Courtney Cunningham, who has filed more than 30 lawsuits against state, county and local governments in hopes of bringing them into compliance.
One of the suits Cunningham filed on behalf of a hearing-impaired client was against the city of West Palm Beach. Soon after he filed the suit in April, the attorney said, the city began offering closed captioning on its live stream of meetings as well as on archived recordings.
That suit, and others like it, including one in St. Lucie County, came to the attention of attorney Glen Torcivia and attorneys in his firm, which represents Highland Beach, Ocean Ridge, South Palm Beach and several other South Florida communities.
Torcivia said his firm then sent a notice out to clients advising of the possibility of lawsuits if they did not have closed captioning available.
That led Highland Beach officials, as well as those in Lake Worth, to stop real-time broadcasts of meetings until closed captioning can be added.
During a recent commission meeting, interim Town Manager William Thrasher said the town is working with its informaton technology firm to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. Live video of meetings could be available as soon as next month or early September.
Highland Beach residents can view recorded versions of meetings, with closed captioning, on the town’s website usually within two or three days of a meeting.
Torcivia said he agrees with the reasoning behind making sure everyone has access to public meetings.
“It’s the right thing to do as long as it’s reasonable to make the accommodations,” he said.
In South Palm Beach County, some of the municipalities with streaming or video recordings of public meetings are already in compliance with the ADA requirements.
Small towns, including South Palm Beach, Manalapan, Ocean Ridge and Briny Breezes, do not video-record or live-stream their meetings. Gulf Stream, like Boynton Beach, does not live-stream but does offer video-recorded meetings through its YouTube channel, which has closed captioning available. Lantana posts audio-only recordings of its meetings.
Delray Beach officials said they are exploring their options after learning about the ADA requirements. Boca Raton recently began offering closed captioning during live streams of its meeting and on recorded meetings.
Cunningham, who filed his lawsuit against West Palm Beach on behalf of disability rights advocate Eddie Sierra and the National Association of the Deaf, said the U.S. Department of Justice notified local and state governments in 2003 about the ADA requirement to make online content accessible to hearing-impaired people.
For whatever reason, compliance was sporadic at best. Torcivia speculated that perhaps the cost of adding closed captioning was prohibitive 15 years ago and is now more affordable.
Cunningham, who has a son with a disability, said he notifies municipalities by mail if it is discovered they are not in compliance before filing a lawsuit.
Among those the attorney is suing on behalf of the National Association of the Deaf is the state of Florida, which Sierra and the association contend does not provide closed captioning of legislative activity and therefore is violating the ADA.