Harvard, MIT Sued by Deaf Advocates Over Online Captioning

MIT

An advocacy group for the deaf has sued Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology due to their failure to provide closed captioning online lectures, courses, podcasts and other educational materials.

The discrimination suit which filed on behalf of the aggrieved students, was submitted to the federal court this week in Springfield, Massachusetts. The documents were filed by the lawyers with the National Association of the Deaf.

The complaint which was filed read:

“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 learning. Just as buildings without ramps bar people who use wheelchairs, online content without captions excludes individuals who are deaf or hard of learning.”

Both the schools claim that they haven’t yet been served with the complaint and have declined to comment directly on the specific litigation.

Kimberly Allen, a spokeswoman for MIT, said that the university is committed to making its educational material accessible to all students and online learners who are deaf and hearing impaired. While Harvard University spokesman Jeff Neal told the media that while he could not comment on the litigation, Harvard expects the Justice Department to propose rules this year that will provide much-needed guidance and that the university would follow the rules that will be laid out.

The case focuses on the important role of online materials in higher education. Harvard and MIT have extensive materials which are available free online on platforms like YouTube, iTunesU, Harvard@Home and MIT OpenCourseWare. Both the universities are also the partners of edX, a non- profit that offers MOOCs, or massive open online courses, which are available for free to students around the world.

Bill Lann Lee, one of the plaintiff’s lawyers and a former head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, explained about the suit:

“It is right that Harvard and MIT, which both receive millions of dollars of federal tax support, are mandated by our civil rights laws to provide equal access to their programs and services. The civil rights laws apply not only to services offered in brick and mortar places. They require equal access to electronic services on the Internet that modern technology makes possible.”

The lawsuits, which are seeking class action status, claim that the universities have largely denied access to this content to the approximately 48 million – nearly one out of five – Americans who are deaf or have difficulty hearing.

The federal government has already moved to ensure that students who are blind will not be left out by the adoption of electronic readers, and it is now taking action to ensure that deaf students have more access to captioned materials.

Lawyers hope that a lawsuit against two of the most prestigious universities in the world will set an example for the hundreds of other schools moving classes and course materials online.