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Harvard and M.I.T. Are Sued Over Lack of Closed Captions
February 12, 2015
Source: NY Times
Advocates for the deaf on Thursday filed federal lawsuits against Harvard and M.I.T., saying both universities violated antidiscrimination laws by failing to provide closed captioning in their online lectures, courses, podcasts and other educational materials.
“Much of the Harvard 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 expected the Justice Department to propose rules this year “to provide much-needed guidance in this area,” and that the university would follow whatever rules were adopted.
A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said the university was committed to making its materials accessible to its students and online learners who are hearing-impaired, and included 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 include closed captioning, which provides a text version of the words being spoken, in 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, which is seeking class-action status, 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.”
Bill Lann Lee, the Oakland, Calif., lawyer who represented the association along with lawyers from several disability rights groups, said the association thought that because Harvard and M.I.T. had been leaders in putting university content online, a change in their practices would have an impact on other universities’ policies.
The federal government has already moved to ensure that blind students will not be left out by the adoption of electronic readers; it is now taking action to ensure that deaf students have access to captioned materials.
In 2010, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and the Office for Civil Rights for the Education Department sent a joint letter to university and college presidents saying federal disability laws required that “individuals with disabilities must be provided with aids, benefits or services that provide an equal opportunity to achieve the same result or the same level of achievement as others.”
Although the letter dealt specifically with blind students and e-book readers, disability rights lawyers say the same reasoning applies to deaf students and online lectures.
In December, the Education Department resolved broad compliance reviews with the University of Cincinnati and Youngstown State University, with agreements that specifically included captioning as part of compliance with the disability laws.
“Disability law compliance at universities is very much a work in progress, even though access to education is incredibly important,” said Samuel Bagenstos, a University of Michigan law professor who was formerly the principal deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department Civil Rights Division. “It requires making changes in bureaucratic routines, and in big institutions, there is resistance to deviating from the routines.”
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