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Harvard, MIT sued over lack of captioning on video courses

A national advocacy group filed federal lawsuits against Harvard and MIT on Thursday, accusing the universities of discriminating against people who are deaf and hard of hearing by failing to caption their vastly expanding array of online courses.

“Just as buildings without ramps bar people who use wheelchairs, online content without captions excludes individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing,” said the lawsuits filed in US District Court in Massachusetts by the National Association of the Deaf.

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The class-action suits accuse the universities of violating the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the 1973 Rehabilitation Act by denying people who are deaf and hard of hearing access to thousands of videos and audio recordings that the universities make available free to the public.

The association is targeting Harvard and MIT because both are globally recognized leaders in offering massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, that provide educational content to the public that was traditionally available only to enrolled students. In 2013, both Harvard and MIT launched edX, a pioneering nonprofit partnership that offers online classes.

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“We think they’re in the best position to make the necessary changes and, when they do, it will send a powerful message to all other colleges and universities as we enter an era when online education is becoming the norm, and not the exception,” said Christine M. Griffin, executive director of the Disability Law Center in Boston, and a co-counsel in the case.

The online material is available on YouTube, iTunes, and other online sources, and includes lectures by professors as well as campus talks by prominent figures such as President Obama and Bill Gates. Some of the videos lack captions, the lawsuit says, while some have captions that are inaccurate.

Jeff Neal, a Harvard spokesman, said the university cannot comment on ongoing litigation, but said Harvard understands the importance of making online courses inclusive.

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“Expanding access to knowledge and making online learning content accessible is of vital importance to Harvard and to educational institutions across the country,” he said.

Neal said Harvard is expecting the US Department of Justice to issue proposed rules this summer to provide “much needed guidance in this area.”

“We look forward to the establishment of those new standards and will, of course, fully comply once they are finalized,” he said.

Kimberly Allen, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the university had not yet received the lawsuit.

“However, MIT is committed to making its educational material accessible to our students and online learners who are deaf and hearing impaired,” she said. “For example, in MIT OpenCourseWare, we include subtitles for all the new course videos that we publish as well as all the most popular OCW courses.”

The National Association of the Deaf has taken similar actions to force the captioning of other online content.

In 2011, it sued Netflix for failing to caption movies and other material that it streams online, a case that was settled when the company agreed to add captions to all of its on-demand streaming content by Sept. 2014.

In 2013, the association announced that it was working with Apple to ensure that television shows and movies offered by iTunes would include captions or subtitles by June 2015.

The suits against Harvard and MIT were filed on behalf of four people who are deaf and hard of hearing — including C. Wayne Dore of Amherst and Lee and Diane Nettles of Westfield — who say they tried to use the universities’ online classes, but were unable to understand them because of the lack of captioning.

“All they have to do is provide accurate captioning to such online educational content, yet they provide no or inaccurate captioning which is contrary to these schools’ ideals of excellence and service to all,” Howard A. Rosenblum, the association’s chief executive, said in a statement.

Related:

Opinion: On education technology, college lobbyists are keeping disabled students behind

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com.
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