Harvard & MIT Sued for Lack of Captioning in Violation of the ADA and Rehabilitation Act

February 12, 2015 BY EMILY GRIFFIN
Updated: June 3, 2019

On Thursday, February 5, 2015, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) filed a federal class action lawsuit against both Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University. The NAD cited violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act in the universities’ failure to provide appropriately accurate and comprehensive captioning for online course materials.

Deaf advocates emphasize the increasing importance of digital media in education, such as recorded lectures, presentation videos, or podcasts. That educational material should be accessible to all students. The complaints read: “Just as buildings without ramps bar people who use wheelchairs, online content without captions excludes individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.”

Also, the complaints charge that some of the existing captions are inaccurate. However, all the examples cited in NAD’s press release are of YouTube auto-captions, which are computer-generated captions known to be inaccurate. In contrast, 3Play Media’s captioning process is performed by trained, professional transcriptionists, yielding at least 99% accuracy.

As founding partners of edX, a free, open-source resource, MIT and Harvard are pioneers in e-learning. One of edX’s stated goals is to “expand access to education for everyone.” But the NAD laments that much of the universities’ online media is published on platforms like YouTube, whose auto-captioning function is woefully insufficient for the hard of hearing.

Recent law suits against FedEx and Netflix have clarified the legal requirement to caption video as it relates to employee training or digitally broadcast media, respectively. But the ADA doesn’t explicitly address online video accessibility, which is why this case can be instrumental in setting precedent for its application to online media captioning for education.

The plaintiff’s lawyer, Brian Lann Lee, targeted Harvard and MIT for this suit in the hopes that a ruling will pressure other universities to comply with stricter captioning standards.

Harvard spokesperson Jeff Neal also expects the case to prompt the United States Department of Justice “to provide much-needed guidance in this area.”

MIT’s spokesperson reassured the New York Times that MIT is committed to improving accessibility of online courses adding captions to all new web content.

A 2010 letter from the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights addressed the importance of adapting accessibility standards to new technology in education:

“Emerging technologies are an educational resource that enhances learning for everyone, and perhaps especially for students with disabilities. Technological innovations have opened a virtual world of commerce, information, and education to many individuals with disabilities for whom access to the physical world remains challenging. Ensuring equal access to emerging technology in university and college classrooms is a means to the goal of full integration and equal educational opportunity for this nation’s students with disabilities.”

The above letter was drafted in regards to blind student access to e-readers, but it could be extended to apply to captioning for deaf or hard of hearing students.

3Play Media works with MIT, Harvard, and edX to provide captioning and transcription services. For example, the Harvard School of Public Health added interactive transcripts to online video material. MIT OpenCourseWare and other groups like MIT150 not only captioned their videos, but also made them searchable to improve the learning experience for all students.

For updates on how this case develops, read:

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