“That’s the problem,” says Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum, partner at Brown, Goldstein & Levy. “We’re trying to change [the] culture.”
The culture that needs changing, according to Krevor-Weisbaum, is one in which people with disabilities are ignored. With the National Federation of the Blind as a firm client, the civil rights lawyer is on her way to making that happen.
Recently, for example, Krevor-Weisbaum was co-counsel for two blind students at Florida State University. At issue was the way the math department organized homework assignments, practice problems and quizzes online. While the system was convenient for most students, it was insurmountable for her clients. The software was not compatible with the students’ screen readers, which convert text to audio, although compatible software options were available to the school. University professors also required the use of clickers—handheld electronic devices for students to answer questions in class—another tool used at FSU that her clients could not utilize though accessible devices were on the market.
Before reaching out to the National Federation of the Blind, which put them in touch with Krevor-Weisbaum, the students raised the issues with the university for nearly two years to no avail.
Bringing a lawsuit changed that.
In March 2012, the university agreed to make its class materials accessible to all, bring its technology-based materials into compliance with disability laws and pay each of the two students $75,000. “I think they felt that finally they were heard by the university, and … [hoped] that no future blind student would have to deal with what they dealt with,” Krevor-Weisbaum says.
Krevor-Weisbaum got her first taste of advocating for people with disabilities while working for 11 years at the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, which included a role as an assistant attorney general in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. She enjoys puzzling out the issues those with disabilities face. “They change over time, and some of the same themes are present over time, so I find that kind of fascinating,” she says. “A good example of that is technology; [as it] has changed and become more part of society, the issues that people with disabilities confront become more complicated.” She joined Brown Goldstein, where she’d formerly clerked, in 2000.
Her work has also led her to other public universities, like Pennsylvania State University, to help the school reach an agreement with the National Federation of the Blind to make their electronic and information technology accessible. She says the agreements go beyond helping students. “We had a blind faculty member who had to call for assistance every time she walked into a classroom,” Krevor-Weisbaum says. “The podium used for presenting PowerPoint slides and other media had a flat screen with no tactile buttons.”
So why not go after the companies that make inaccessible products?
“There isn’t something in the law that reaches the actual manufacturers of products,” Krevor-Weisbaum explains. Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act require equal access for people with disabilities and public accommodations at public entities, but manufacturers do not need to make accessible products. “So the only way to put pressure on the manufacturers of the products is through their customers.”
Her firm also went up against Target Corp. for having an inaccessible website, resulting in a $6 million damages settlement and a promise to make Target.com fully accessible. “Lots of businesses started to realize that they needed to make their websites accessible,” Krevor-Weisbaum says. “We call some of this work ‘impact work’ because it’s not just the organization that is a defendant in that case. Hopefully, it boils down to other like businesses.”
Krevor-Weisbaum is in the midst of working out full ADA compliance with the largest ATM owner/operator in the country, after a decade of litigation. This class action lawsuit against Cardtronics advocated for talking ATMs, which allow vision-impaired people to plug in headphones and complete transactions through audio directions, specifications now required under new ADA standards passed in 2010. Her firm reached the original class action settlement with Cardtronics in December 2007—which included making all of Cardtronics’ current and future ATMs voice-guided—but the case currently lingers in litigation “regarding some contempt motions,” Krevor-Weisbaum says. “We’re hoping we’re nearing the conclusion.”
In addition to working with individuals and their families, Krevor-Weisbaum also represents not-for-profit agencies in Maryland that support people with disabilities.
“I find it inspiring,” she says of her work. “It does make you feel like you are accomplishing some good things.”