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Harvard and MIT Face Lawsuit for Lack of Online Captioning


On the same day that MIT issued an extensive strategic plan for fostering greater campus inclusiveness, the Massachusetts school has been sued for the non-inclusive nature of its massive open online courses and other publicly available online content. Along with Harvard University, MIT now faces a lawsuit from the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) as well as four deaf and hard of hearing individuals accusing the institutions of failing to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. The complaint: that they fail to include captions on the materials they post online for consumption by the general public.

The cases have been filed in the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts and seek a change in conduct, not money damages.

"Online content represents the next frontier for learning and lifelong education," said Howard Rosenblum, NAD's CEO. "Yet both Harvard and MIT betray their legendary leadership in quality education by denying access to approximately 48 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing."

"Having no captions is equivalent to stating 'people with disabilities may not enter,'" added Arlene Mayerson, of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.

Haben Girma, a graduate of Harvard's law school and attorney for Disability Rights Advocates, a disability rights legal center, told Campus Technology that she is thrilled to find out that NAD is working to make Harvard and MIT "more accessible." "Students, faculty and others who are deaf deserve access to the wealth of information Harvard and MIT place online. I hope these schools agree to provide captions so that deaf individuals have equal access to information."

Both Harvard and MIT are charter members of edX, a consortium of institutions that provide free courses online. According to an FAQ on the edX site, the courses include "interactive transcripts," which can be accessed by clicking a Closed Captions (cc) tab in the lower right corner of the video player. Transcripts appear on the right of the screen. The same FAQ encourages students with disabilities to contact the service with comments or questions and provides a dedicated e-mail address for that: [email protected].

Although videos on YouTube frequently include transcriptions, their quality is highly suspect when they're generated automatically by the site's speech recognition technology. Subtitles and closed captions can be uploaded to YouTube for inclusion on videos or the video poster can enter captions through a "transcribe and sync" feature.

In his own captioned YouTube video, Rosenblum explained that the selection of such high-profile defendants will send a signal. "Both universities have many of these videos, so we are suing them first and expect to ensure full online video access at all other universities and colleges across the country. This lawsuit is part of our battle for full access to online media content. We want equal access for all."

Kimberly Allen, a spokeswoman at MIT, said the institution hadn't been served with a complaint yet. However, she added, "MIT is committed to making its educational material accessible to our students and online learners who are deaf and hearing impaired." As an example, she pointed to MIT OpenCourseWare, where subtitles are included for "the most popular courses" as well as all new course videos published.

Jeff Neal, a spokesman for Harvard, told CT that while the school couldn't comment on potential or ongoing litigation, it did want to emphasize that "Expanding access to knowledge and making online learning content accessible is of vital importance to Harvard and to educational institutions across the country." Harvard expects that the U.S. Department of Justice could issue proposed rules in June 2015 "to provide much needed guidance in this area." Once those rules are in place, he said, the university "will, of course, fully comply."

Editor's note: This article has been modified since its original publication to include additional quotes. [Last updated Feb. 12, 2015 at 2:57 p.m.]

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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