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National Association of the Deaf Sues Harvard and MIT for Discrimination

Author: Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center : Contact: Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center

Published: 2015-02-12

Synopsis and Key Points:

NAD and deaf and hard of hearing individuals file lawsuits against Harvard University and MIT charging they discriminate by failing to caption online content including MOOCs.

Main Digest

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and four deaf and hard of hearing individuals filed two federal class action lawsuits today against Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), charging that the schools discriminate by failing to caption the vast array of online content they make available to the general public, including massive open online courses (MOOCs).

The cases, filed in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, assert that these universities violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act by denying deaf and hard of hearing people access to thousands of videos and audio tracks that each university makes publicly available, for free, on broad-ranging topics of general interest. These include entire semesters'-worth of courses; campus talks by luminaries such as President Barack Obama; and regular podcasts such as the "HBR IdeaCast" by the Harvard Business Review. The universities boast that their content is available free to anyone and that millions of people have visited the websites.

"Online content represents the next frontier for learning and lifelong education," said Howard A. Rosenblum, NAD's CEO. "Yet both Harvard and MIT betray their legendary leadership in quality education by denying access to approximately 48 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing."

"Federal law prohibits MIT and Harvard from denying individuals with disabilities the benefits of their programs and services, including those provided to the public on the Internet," said Timothy Fox, of the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center in Denver, explained.

"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," said Bill Lann Lee, plaintiffs' lawyer and a former head of the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. "These laws apply whether in a brick and mortar classroom, or online," Lee explained.

Arlene Mayerson, of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund said,

"The ADA was passed to make sure that these opportunities for learning are not foreclosed based on disability. Having no captions is equivalent to stating 'people with disabilities may not enter.'"

Christine M. Griffin, of the Disability Law Center in Boston, said,

"Our hope is that this lawsuit will set an example for other universities to follow. These lawsuits seek to have the schools reform their conduct, not money damages."

Many videos simply aren't captioned at all. For example, a 2013 Harvard Q&A with Bill Gates lacks closed captions.

"Worse still," said attorney Fox, "are videos with inaccurate captioning - they are sometimes completely unintelligible."

He cited a video of students welcoming Lady Gaga to the Harvard campus, where a student said, "...on our campus..." but was transcribed as saying, "hot Campen good."

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