Harvard, MIT sued for not providing online material closed captioning

'No captions is like no ramp for people in wheelchairs,' says one lawyer

An advocacy group for the deaf filed two federal class-action lawsuits against top universities on Thursday, alleging the schools violated antidiscrimination laws by failing to provide accurate—or at times any—closed captioning for public online course materials.

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and four deaf and hard of hearing people filed the lawsuits in the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts against Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), saying the schools violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The lawsuits do not seek monetary damages, but rather a permanent requirement to provide closed captioning, a text version of words spoken, in online materials.

"No captions is like no ramp for people in wheelchairs," says Arlene Mayerson, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the MIT lawsuit.

The lawsuits highlight the growing role of online programs in the higher education sphere.

"Online content represents the next frontier for learning and lifelong education," says Howard Rosenblum, CEO of NAD. "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."

The two universities provide no-cost materials on platforms such as YouTube, Harvard@Home, iTunesU, MIT OpenCourseWare, and edX, the free MOOC provider.

While neither university commented directly on the lawsuits, Harvard spokesperson Jeff Neal says the school believes the Department of Justice will issue guidelines in June and that his school will follow them.


In 2010, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division weighed in on higher education, disabilities, and new technology. In a joint letter to higher education institutions' presidents, the departments said schools must provide "aids, benefits, or services that provide an equal opportunity to achieve the same result or the same level of achievement as others" when concerning blind students and e-readers. 

How to measure the accessibility of disability services for minority students

Disability rights lawyers argue the same applies to online lectures and deaf and hard of hearing students.

The Department of Education in December concluded compliance reviews at Youngstown State University and University of Cincinnati, mandating that they include closed captioning in lecture videos.

NAD hopes that changing practices at Harvard and MIT will have a ripple effect on other universities because they are leaders in university online content, says Bill Lann Lee, a lawyer representing the advocacy group (NAD release, 2/12; Lewin, New York Times, 2/12; Malone, Reuters, 2/12).

The takeaway: Two lawsuits were filed last week against Harvard and MIT, arguing that the universities violated antidiscrimination laws by failing to provide accurate closed captioning for public online course materials. Lawyers say they are not seeking monetary damages, but rather to influence the standards moving forward.

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