Advocates for the deaf on Thursday filed a federal class action against Harvard and M.I.T., saying both universities violate anti-discrimination laws by failing to provide closed captioning in their online lectures, courses, podcasts and other educational materials.
“Much of Harvard’s online content is either not captioned or is inaccurately or unintelligibly captioned, making it inaccessible for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing,” the complaint said, echoing language used in the M.I.T. complaint. “Just as buildings without ramps bar people who use wheelchairs, online content without captions excludes individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.”
Jeff Neal, a spokesman for Harvard, said that while he could not comment on the litigation, Harvard expects the United States Department of Justice to issue proposed rules later this year “to provide much-needed guidance in this area,” and that the university will follow whatever rules are adopted.
A spokeswoman for M.I.T. said the university was committed to making its materials accessible to its students and online learners who are hearing-impaired, and includes captioning in all new course videos and its most popular online courses.
The case highlights the increasingly important role of online materials in higher education.
M.I.T. and Harvard have extensive materials available free online, on platforms like YouTube, iTunesU, Harvard@Home and MIT OpenCourseWare. In addition, the two universities are the founding partners of edX, a nonprofit that offers dozens of MOOCs, or massive open online courses, free to students around the world.
The complaints say Harvard and M.I.T. violated both the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and seek a permanent injunction requiring them to provide closed captioning — which provides a text version of the words being spoken — for their online materials. Despite repeated requests by the association, the complaints say, the two universities provide captioning in only a fraction of the materials, “and even then, inadequately.”
The lawsuits, filed by the National Association of the Deaf, say the universities have “largely denied access to this content to the approximately 48 million — nearly one out of five — Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing.”
Read more at The New York Times.