eBay Sued For Discriminating Against Deaf Sellers

A deaf woman in Missouri who wanted to sell books on eBay has sued the online auction site for allegedly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by requiring sellers to use a telephone to verify their identities.

In a complaint filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in the western district of Missouri, Melissa Earll alleges that as a "profoundly deaf" person, she was unable to register with eBay because the company verifies identity through telephone calls. eBay allegedly gives prospective merchants passwords over the telephone; the registrants must then enter those passwords online.

Earll says in her lawsuit that she spent two months in the summer of 2008 corresponding with eBay in an unsuccessful attempt to convince the site to use an alternative verification system. In late 2009, she tried to register as a seller and again was unable to do so, she alleges.

"Plaintiff was never able to register with eBay as a seller and thus prevented from using eBay's services solely because of her disability," she argues in her lawsuit. Earll is seeking class-action status.

eBay said in a statement that it belives its polices are "consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act and related laws." The company added that it "strives to equally serve all of our users in an appropriate, lawful and responsible manner."

Earll is seeking declaratory judgment that eBay has violated federal anti-discrmination laws as well as state laws in California, where eBay is headquartered. Earll is also seeking monetary damages and an injunction requiring the site to make its registration procedure accessible to deaf people.

"She wants the system changed," says her lawyer, Michael Aschenbrener of the law firm Edelson McGuire. "She wants to be able to sell on eBay." He added that she had hoped to auction off rare books she had found in her home.

She proposed in her legal papers that eBay could use CAPTCHAs (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) for verification. "What makes eBay's discriminatory conduct all the more galling is that solutions to this problem are easy and inexpensive to implement -- solutions being used by thousands of companies online," the lawsuit alleges.

eBay isn't the only Web company to face litigation for allegedly discriminating against people with disabilities. In 2008, Target agreed to pay $6 million to settle a case alleging that it violated the rights of blind people by failing to code its site with sufficient alt text tags, which are used by screenreaders to convert a page's content into speech. Target promised to revamp its site to add more such tags, and also to make the site easier to navigate by using just a keyboard rather than a mouse.

5 comments about "eBay Sued For Discriminating Against Deaf Sellers".
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  1. Andrew Ettinger, March 17, 2010 at 9:48 a.m.

    I don't recall ever having to call ebay and I have been selling there for years. Hasanyone else enountered this?

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 17, 2010 at 10:22 a.m.

    There are phones specifically designed for deaf people. As far as I know, there isn't even a charge for the service. That being the case, it is not eBay's responsibility. Please note: I have no interests in eBay and know persons with disabilities should have the same opportunities as anyone else.

  3. K P, March 17, 2010 at 11:27 a.m.

    This is a new feature of eBay. The existing sellers were grandfathered in.

    IP Relay does not work here because what these verification systems do, is that they ask you for a number to call on the sign-up form, and then within the next few minutes, they call you at that number to ask you to press a series of automated numbers. So it's like this:

    1. Enter your phone number on the sign-up form
    2. The automated system calls the phone number
    3. Person is expected to answer, and then is asked to press a series of numbers to complete verification.

    You cannot call deaf people directly on Relay. You have to first call a Relay operator, then ask that Relay operator to call the deaf person's telephone number.

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 17, 2010 at 8:29 p.m.

    Thank you KP for the information. This brings about another situation. Ebay has been accused of dealing with too many scam artists of varying degrees. Wouldn't doubt it. So what is the better solution to phone verification? Do they have one? Does someone else?

  5. Nancy Creighton, May 16, 2010 at 5:33 a.m.

    I have the exact same problem with eBay and I never solved it. Moved on to other things, but would like to get back to this. K.P. had the best explanation, thanks. And Paula Lynn, I didn't have trouble authenticating myself to other sites, but it's been awhile, and I can't remember what they were. I contacted eBay support several times and couldn't get anyone to understand what I was talking about. One guy tried to help, but he ran into the same wall I did. There was no way he could call and stay on the line himself so I could answer via relay, it's all automated.

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