Harvard, MIT sued over failure to provide closed captioning for online courses

Both schools say they haven't yet been served with a complaint, and would not comment directly on the relevant litigation.
By Brooks Hays   |   Feb. 12, 2015 at 6:33 PM

BOSTON, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- A group of students are suing Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology over the two schools' failure to provide closed captioning for online courses, including audio and video materials.

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

"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 hearing," the complaint reads.

Lawyers say the schools' actions -- or lack there of -- are in violation of both the Americans With Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

"Just as buildings without ramps bar people who use wheelchairs, online content without captions excludes individuals who are deaf," the suit alleges.

Both schools say they haven't yet been served with the complaint, and declined to comment directly on the specific litigation.

"MIT is committed to making its educational material accessible to our students and online learners who are deaf and hearing impaired," Kimberly Allen, an MIT spokeswoman, told Bloomberg News in an email.

Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal told reporters his Ivy League employer is waiting for the Justice Department to clarify rules relevant to the situation.

"Expanding access to knowledge and making online learning content accessible is of vital importance to Harvard," Neal wrote in an email to Bloomberg News. "We expect that the U.S. Department of Justice may issue proposed rules in June 2015 to provide much needed guidance in this area."

Officials with the National Association of the Deaf said the lawsuit specifically targets Harvard and MIT because the two higher-education institutions have been at the forefront of online education. Both schools partnered to found EdX in 2012, a massive open online course provider offering hundreds of free courses and a huge archive of free educational materials.

"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," Bill Lann Lee, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers and former head of the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, said in a press release. "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."

Lawyers hope a lawsuit against the two prestigious schools will set an important precedent for the hundreds of other schools moving classes and course materials online.

"Disability law compliance at universities is very much a work in progress, even though access to education is incredibly important," Michigan University law professor Sam Bagenstos, also a former Civil Rights Division head, told The New York Times.

"It requires making changes in bureaucratic routines, and in big institutions, there's resistance to deviating from the routines."

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