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Gary C. Norman: The intersection of technology and civil rights

Gary C. Norman

Gary C. Norman

Emerging technologies, such as artificially intelligent robots, will transform cities. (This transformation may perhaps be more austere than the transition from the horse to automobiles.) As much as the Americans with Disabilities Act and its state-based legal protections have improved the lives of Americans, the civil rights laws ultimately were written in past decades whose distance to today is arguably as far as Christopher Columbus is to Apollo 13. As a lawyer, and a disabled person, I often think how this level of continued change will impact our civil and human rights, especially for people with disabilities who have historically been marginalized.

I think about technology any day when I ride to the office without waiting on a taxi or when I read email on my phone. My iPhone and my text-to-speech computer allow me, for example, to be an attorney and writer while being out and about in the community. In the fashion of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” technologies of this kind would have seemed as so much magic even a century ago.

That these technologies exist at the intersection of what some might view as specialized markets and technological innovation shows the power of how civil rights, as found in laws like the ADA, and innovation may be mutually supportive.

A couple of examples – one positive and one mixed – touch on the relationship of civil rights and technology, and ultimately the question as to how we harness technologies for human progress.

The shared economy has sparked discussion as to the impact of technology on legal protections. A 2016 settlement in National Federation of the Blind of California, et al. v. Uber Technologies, Inc. ensures that app-based companies, such as Uber, do not discriminate against service animal handlers. In that case, and in my own experience, unlawful treatment has occurred against guide dog handlers. As part of the settlement, the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind and its California affiliate have established a multi-year monitoring process. Moreover, the Maryland Public Service Commission, which regulates taxis and sedan providers, has promulgated and issued a set of regulations regarding Lyft and Uber requiring their drivers to permit service animals and to ensure websites accessible to people with sensory disabilities.

In other cases, however, law and technology have not kept pace. In absence of updated law and policy, such as through a properly promulgated and narrowly tailored rule, the federal appellate courts are divided on what should be a well-accepted concept by now: websites constitute places of public accommodation. Some courts have interpreted the definition of a place of public accommodation under ADA not to apply to websites that are not associated with a “brick and mortar” venue.

If managed and structured properly, we may have global cities in the future enriched by human-centered technologies that enhance the human condition and equality of people with disabilities and older adults. But if allowed to develop organically without forethought, technology will plague the less advantaged.

As a former state civil rights commissioner, I recommend a forward-looking governor empanel a statewide working group on civil rights and technology. Among the possible issues the working group should explore:

  • Ensuring future transportation systems have the needs of disparate minority populations at heart. Driverless automobiles have the possibility of eliminating the social isolation of people with disabilities and older adults.No more para-transit, no more waiting on a friend.
  • Ensuring our homes are no longer fences that divide us but are technology-enabled centers for the highest level of health for We have more and more mHealth and tele-health technologies and technology start-up companies that will enable us to track the movement and health of older adults.
  • Ensuring everyone is meaningfully part of the community.

Considering the rapid nature of technological change, policy leaders must think beyond today. They must envision a future that looks more like “Star Trek: The Next Generation” rather than “The Terminator.”

Gary C. Norman, Esq. LL.M. serves as the vice chair at the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. He can be reached at