Judge Recommends that Disability Lawsuit Proceed

A Massachusetts magistrate judge recommended that the District Court deny Harvard’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit that alleges the University is discriminating against deaf and hard of hearing individuals by not providing closed captioning for all online content.

“Having reviewed all of the pleadings relating to this motion… and having heard the parties at oral argument, for the reasons set forth below, the court recommends that Harvard’s motion be denied in its entirety,” Katherine A. Robertson, a judge for the Massachusetts District Court, wrote in a filing on Feb. 9.

If accepted, Robertson’s recommendation would mean that the suit filed last year by the National Association of the Deaf will proceed into further litigation.

In the original complaint, the plaintiffs cited Youtube videos, podcasts, and edX courses—part of a joint venture between Harvard and MIT—as examples of Harvard’s online content that purportedly deny access to deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

The complaint alleges that Harvard has violated the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the American Disabilities Act of 1990 by not inserting digital captions into online educational content. The former mandates that federally-funded educational institutions provide equal access to all individuals, regardless of disabilities. The latter law mandates that public places of accommodation “not deny persons with disabilities” their services.

Harvard sought to delay or dismiss the case until the U.S. Department of Justice issued specific digital provisions of the ADA given the lack of current legal precedence for online public spaces.

Interpretations of the ADA have varied since the original law went into effect in 1990, according to Caroline Jackson, an attorney for the National Association of the Deaf.

“Back then, public life was tangible. It was the stores you could walk into, it was the sidewalks you could get on, it was the doctors that you could go see in person,” Jackson said. “Since then, public sphere has become intangible; it’s become the cybersphere.”

The plaintiffs seek a settlement that would require Harvard to caption all of its online material.

“Expanding access to knowledge and making online learning content accessible is of vital importance to Harvard and to educational institutions across the country. We cannot, however, comment on potential or ongoing litigation,” University spokesperson Jeff Neal wrote in an emailed statement.

–Crimson staff writer Marella A. Gayla can be reached at marella.gayla@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MarellaGayla.

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