Lawsuit Alleges that Harvard's Online Content Discriminates

The National Association of the Deaf filed lawsuits Thursday against Harvard and MIT alleging that they had discriminated against deaf and hard of hearing individuals by not providing captioning for their online content.

The complaint against Harvard alleges that the University has “largely denied access to this content to the approximately 48 million—nearly one out of five—Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing.” According to the complaint, a significant amount of Harvard’s online content does not provide proper captioning and is thus inaccessible to individuals with hearing impairments.

The complaint against Harvard cites YouTube videos, podcasts, and in particular MOOCs available through the online learning platform edX as examples of the “thousands of videos and audio tracks publicly available for free to anyone.” EdX, a non-profit digital learning platform founded by Harvard and MIT, offers courses that are free and open to the public, but without captions, the complaint says.

“Harvard and MIT are leaders in the movement among universities to put a lot of content online,” said Bill Lann Lee, one of the lawyers representing the NAD in the suits. “The objective of the National Association of the Deaf is to make sure that, with respect to this burgeoning area of education...deaf people not be left out.”

The suits came after repeated requests made by the NAD to the University to provide accurate captioning, according to the complaint. Harvard is “fully aware that captioning is necessary” for its online content to be equally accessible, the complaint says.

The complaints against both MIT and Harvard claim that the universities have violated the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The first act requires that places of public accommodation “not deny persons with disabilities” its services, and the second stipulates that education institutions receiving federal financial assistance must provide equal access to all individuals regardless of disabilities.

“Harvard and MIT are covered institutions [under these acts] because they both receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal support,” Lee said. “The online content and services that the universities provide is for the public as well as the students...I really don’t think there’s really any doubt that these laws apply to Harvard and MIT.”

Jeff Neal, a spokesperson for the University, declined to comment on the lawsuit in an email. He did, however, write that Harvard expects that the U.S. Department of Justice will issue proposed rules in June to provide “much needed guidance in this area” and that the University will “fully comply” with these rules.

Christine M. Griffin, executive director of the Disability Law Center in Boston, said she thinks Harvard and MIT have the resources to reform their content and set an example in accessible content for other universities.

“They’re two very large, well-known institutions nationally and internationally that certainly have the ability and the money to get this done,” she said.

—Staff writer Hannah Smati can be reached at hannah.smati@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @HannahSmat

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