Outside of David Zwirner Gallery in New York City (image via Wikimedia Commons)

More than 75 art galleries in New York have been served with lawsuits claiming that they have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to make their websites accessible to blind or visually impaired people.

Galleries targeted include Gagosian, Hirschl & Adler, Pace Editions, David Zwirner, and Marian Goodman. At least 37 of the suits were filed by a single plaintiff, Deshawn Dawson, a legally blind person living in Brooklyn.

This news reflects a growing trend: lawsuits targeting business websites over ADA violations are on the rise, according to the LA Times. Such lawsuits, which have targeted institutions ranging from the Hooters restaurant chain to Harvard University, stem largely from a lack of clarity in regulatory policies. There are no formal government standards for businesses to follow to ensure their websites comply with the ADA. That’s because, when the ADA became law in 1990, legislators who decided to prohibit companies from discriminating against people with disabilities “in the full and equal enjoyment of public accommodations” could not have anticipated how these rules might eventually apply to the internet. In recent years, the Department of Justice’s efforts to update the regulations have been stymied by the Trump administration and remain incomplete.

While the US government doesn’t specify what it means for a website to comply with the ADA, in 2008 the Web Accessibility Initiative published the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which now serve as an ISO standard. These guidelines stipulate that an accessible website’s content must be coded so that screen-reading software can convert the words to an audio translation. Web videos must include descriptions for the deaf, and all interactive functions must be operable through keyboard commands for people unable to use a mouse.

The costs of making a site accessible depend on the site’s complexity and can range from several thousand dollars to a few million. Because of their frequent use of features like slideshows, art gallery websites are usually on the more complex side.

While increasing web access for the visually impaired is, of course, an important cause, some have raised concerns that lawyers are clogging the courts with ADA lawsuits to turn a profit, not for the sake of fighting for the rights of people with disabilities. 

The recent complaints against art galleries, first reported by artnet News, were filed in US District Court for the Southern District of New York. They include claims that the business’ websites lack a code that would enable screen-reading software in browsers to describe images via audio translation. The complaints state that Dawson aims to change the businesses’ “corporate policies, practices, and procedures so that defendant’s website will become and remain accessible to blind and visually impaired consumers.” 

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

10 replies on “More Than 75 New York Galleries Hit with Lawsuits Alleging ADA Violations”

  1. Can I ask the obvious. If a person is legally blind why would he or she sue a gallery whose entire business is VISUAL. It’s unreasonable to expect galleries to do the impossible in this case.

      1. I didn’t forget about the deaf. Most art is visual so it’s not really as relevant. A description of a Michelangelo is not a Michelangelo. Being politically correct for the sake of not sounding cruel doesn’t give these poor people their sight back. They cannot see the paintings and never will and it’s unfortunate. But I have flat feet and scholiosis and can never play sports. And I accept my limitations.

  2. You do realize you are reporting bullshit right? Hahaha Service Animal by law are ONLY dogs. ESA are not service animals and the court will throw anything out not pertaining to a dog so your bitching is doing what now? Follow the law, no one gives a fuck about you. Follow the fucking law and you won’t lose your money

    So what if its not traditional
    The government sad your allergies arent real


    Follow the law

  3. Is this author a PR rep for blue chip galleries in New York? Why are you trying to smear attempts to hold these businesses accountable and create a more accessible art world? The arts should be accessible for all and this article seems to think that blind people’s ability to even participate on a fundamental level is secondary to the cost and annoyance of these galleries. I’m kind of at a loss as to how Hyperallergic would publish this ableist trash and alienate all of it’s disabled readers.

    1. I don’t think the article reads as PR for Blue Chip galleries. If you allow yourself to be alienated by this perspective you risk losing the agency you have by engaging in dialogue. Let’s encourage dialogue that makes access a broader aim and not a pantomime.

  4. I wasn’t aware of how blind people navigated the web, so this article was interesting. If the software is inexpensive, then why wouldn’t the galleries want to broaden their audience? There is much art that goes into traditionally visual art galleries & museums that is not strictly & solely visible. Though the deaf won’t hear music, they will feel the vibrations. There are lots of signs that are invisible, or nonlinguistic, or nonauditory. The plaintiffs aren’t asking for sight, but for access to this art.

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