2015 Harvard Accessibility Lawsuit Will Move Forward in Federal Court

April 19, 2019 BY ELISA EDELBERG

On February 5, 2015, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) filed a class-action lawsuit against Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University. Harvard was accused of violating both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act for failing to provide accurate and comprehensive captioning for online educational content including online lectures, courses, and podcasts.

law bookThe lawsuit noted, “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.”

Providing accommodation such as accurate captions is equally as important as providing wheelchair ramps to access buildings.

Both Harvard and M.I.T. had been leaders in putting university content online and had they ensured that this content was accessible to all, it would have set a powerful precedent for other universities to follow.

A Timeline of Events

The high-profile lawsuit against Harvard will now continue after four years, after a request to dismiss the case was denied for a second time.

In June of 2018, Harvard argued that the plaintiff’s argument was “overreaching” and based off a “broad” reading of federal disability laws. They did not feel that the university should be required to provide closed captions for every video created or hosted on their websites. In addition to several other arguments, they claimed that the school’s online content should not be considered a “public accommodation.” Harvard also requested the Court rule that the laws do not apply to third-party content posted on Harvard’s websites.

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This attempt to dismiss the cases was denied, and an attempt to reach a settlement out of court was made. When that failed, Harvard again moved to dismiss the cases.

After several years of motions and hearings, the lawsuit against Harvard is now moving forward in federal court.

Just a few weeks ago, on March 28, Federal Judge Katherine A. Robertson denied a large part of Harvard’s second request to dismiss the case. Robertson declared that Harvard’s website will not be excluded from Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. However, she did agree that the University could not be held responsible for captions on third-party content under the Communications Decency Act.

Accessibility advocates will continue to monitor this civil rights lawsuit and hope that its outcome sets an important precedent for accessibility moving forward.

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