EdX, an online learning platform that Harvard co-founded with MIT in 2012, entered into a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice on Thursday and will address alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. That settlement could come to bear on a separate but similar lawsuit against Harvard that revolves around issues of accessibility online.
Namely, the edX settlement will require the platform to become accessible for people with disabilities—including those who are deaf or visually impaired.
In particular, edX is required to “provide accurate captioning for the deaf, oral navigation signals for the blind, and programming changes so those with dexterity disabilities can navigate content without struggling with a hand-operated mouse,” among other stipulations, according to a Department of Justice press release. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that public accommodations not deny disabled people its services.
“We know that we still have more to do, but we have always been committed to this goal, and we are excited about where we are going,” wrote Tena Herlihy, general counsel for edX, in a post on the edX website.
The settlement comes as the National Association of the Deaf sues Harvard and MIT for allegedly discriminating against the deaf and hard of hearing by not providing online captioning both for the courses they offer through edX and the rest of their online content. The private lawsuit, filed in February, accuses the University of violating both the American with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, which requires that educational institutions that receive federal funding provide equal access to disabled individuals. Legal experts have said that the suits against Harvard and MIT has merit.
While Thursday’s settlement with the federal government is independent from the ongoing private lawsuit, the settlement could still play a role in the litigation, Peter F. Lake ’81, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who specializes in higher education law.
“It’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t have some impact on that litigation,” Lake said. He added that it is hard to tell exactly to what extent it will influence the Harvard lawsuit, given the differences between private litigation and settlements with the federal government.
For Bill Lann Lee, one of the lawyers representing the NAD, the settlement validates the NAD’s position.
“I think it’s a clear indication from the Department of Justice, which does have the duty of enforcing the ADA, that it believes online content is subject to the ADA,” he said
In 2012, Harvard and MIT launched edX, which has since grown to include numerous other institutions of higher education from around the world, including Columbia and the University of Hong Kong.
—Staff writer Andrew M. Duehren can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter@aduehren.
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