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Bill seeks to make websites accessible to hearing-and visually-impaired

ANNAPOLIS — Civil-rights and business groups battled Wednesday over legislation that would require many restaurants, theaters and other entities in Maryland to make their websites accessible to the hearing- and visually-impaired.

The rights organizations called the measure necessary in an era when so many business announcements — including product discounts and employment opportunities — are posted on line. But the business groups countered that the requirement would be too expensive for small businesses, especially in a troubled economy.

The provision is a part of a larger measure, Senate Bill 278, which would expand the remedies available for discrimination based on disability under state law.

Under the website provision, Maryland businesses that had $1 million in revenue the prior fiscal year would be required to make information posted on their website accessible to the visually impaired, with the use of sound, and to the hearing impaired, with the use of visuals. Failure to comply with the requirement would constitute a violation of Maryland’s law prohibiting discrimination against the disabled by a “place of public accommodation,” which includes any establishment that offers goods, services, entertainment, recreation or transportation.

Victims of discrimination could receive compensatory damages of between $50,000 and $300,000 depending on the size of the company, as measured by its number of employees.

“As we enter the 21st century, the venue for conducting business, procuring goods and services have moved from only brick and mortar locations to the worldwide web, aka the internet,” the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights stated in written testimony to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which held a hearing on the bill Wednesday..

“Sadly, a significant proportion of Maryland citizens, who are blind or deaf, find major barriers to internet usage,” the commission added. “This bill will make it unlawful for the defined business entity to have an inaccessible website.”

But the Maryland Chamber of Commerce said the cost of complying with the accessibility requirement would harm small businesses. The bill considers only a company’s gross revenues, with its $1 million threshold, but does not take into consideration the business’s expenses, the chamber stated in written testimony.

“Most businesses provide websites as simply an extension or enhancement tool of that place of accommodation,” the chamber added. “While this legislation may not present a burden to many large businesses, during these tough economic times, it could prove very burdensome for smaller companies.”

The Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors objected not only to the website requirement but what it called the legislation’s expansion of the number of people who would be considered disabled under the bill. The legislation would delete from existing law the limitation that a disability “substantially limits one or more of an individual’s major life activities.”

“The substantial limitation test has been a crucial part of the federal and state fair housing laws since disability was first recognized as a protected class,” GBBR stated in written testimony.

When told of GBBR’s concern before the hearing, the bill’s chief sponsor expressed surprise and said his goal was “narrowing the definition [of disability] to serve the core constituencies” under the website provision, specifically the visually and hearing impaired.

“This is language that we definitely want to get feedback on,” added Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, D-Montgomery, who is a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

However, much of the testimony filed in advance of the hearing focused not on the definition of disability but on the provision requiring websites to be accessible.

“Website accessibility is necessary because the virtual spaces created by websites are serving as stand-ins for physical public accommodations,” the Maryland Department of Disabilities stated in written testimony. “Inaccessible websites, like inaccessible architecture, can pose significant barriers to individuals with disabilities.”

The Public Justice Center, which provides legal assistance to low-income civil plaintiffs, stated that SB 278 would bring Maryland “civil rights law in step with significant changes in the commercial sector, which has rapidly transitioned from bricks-and-mortar to clicks-and mortar business.”

The National Federation of the Blind and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland also submitted testimony in favor of the bill. The Baltimore-based NFB has brought and settled suits against major retailers over their websites under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Maryland Association of Realtors, like the GBBR, raised objections.

“We are concerned that a real estate brokerage with gross revenues of $1 million or more would be required under this bill to pay for a costly website redesign when real estate brokerage services can easily be accessed over the telephone,” the association said in writing testimony. “We see no added benefit to consumers of real estate brokerage services from passage of SB 278 and we see the potential for significant expenses to be incurred by mid size and larger real estate companies.”

Websites created and made available to the public before Oct. 1, 2012 — the effective date of SB 278 if enacted — would have to be made accessible to the blind and visually impaired by Oct. 1, 2013.

The Department of Legislative Services estimates the bill would cost the state $114,200 in fiscal year 2013, which would pay for an attorney and investigator to handle an expected increase in complaints to the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights.

An identical bill is pending in the House of Delegates. Del. Sandy I. Rosenberg, D-Baltimore City, is the chief sponsor of House Bill 183.