Two of the most prestigious universities in the US are being sued by the National Association for the Deaf over their failure to provide closed captions on their online lectures, courses, podcasts and other educational materials.
Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have been accused of violating American anti-discrimination laws - the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act – by not providing captions on their extensive online content.
“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,” said the National Association for the Deaf.
“Just as buildings without ramps bar people who use wheelchairs, online content without captions excludes individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.”
The Association, which has repeatedly asked the institutions to improve captioning, says the universities have “largely denied access to this content to the approximately 48 million — nearly one out of five — Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing.”
A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said the university was committed to making its materials accessible to its students and online learners who are hearing-impaired, and included captioning in all new course videos and its most popular online courses.
Harvard expected the Justice Department to propose rules this year “to provide much-needed guidance in this area,” and that the university would follow whatever rules were adopted.
Online materials are playing an increasingly important part in higher education. MIT and Harvard have posted large ammounts of free material on YouTube, iTunesU, Harvard@Home and MIT OpenCourseWare.
In addition, the two universities are founders of edX, an organisation that runs dozens of massive open online courses (MOOCs), free to students around the world.
“Disability law compliance at universities is very much a work in progress, even though access to education is incredibly important,” said Samuel Bagenstos, a University of Michigan law professor. “It requires making changes in bureaucratic routines, and in big institutions, there’s resistance to deviating from the routines.”
Closed captioning involves producing a transcript of spoken materials and sometimes descriptions. Closed captions can be turned on or off by a viewer, while open ones are always visible.
Software that produces captions automatically is available, but it nearly always requires editing to achieve an intelligible result.