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Harvard, MIT Closed Captioning Lawsuit: Implications for Educators

The New York Times broke the news late last week that Harvard University and MIT are both being sued for failing to provide closed captions for online lectures and other educational video.  The complaints allege that the universities are violating anti-discrimination laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In this case the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and other disability rights groups are suing on behalf of those who are deaf or hard of hearing, pointing out that the two universities provide thousands of hours of educational video content, but that much of it is not closed captioned, or is captioned with poor accuracy.

“Online content represents the next frontier for learning and lifelong education,” said Howard A. Rosenblum, NAD’s CEO, on the NAD website.  “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. ”

AST has not yet seen the full complaints, but based on details reported by the New York Times and on information in NAD’s press release, there are a couple clear implications for higher education, and educators in general:

  • First, all publicly available video content should be closed captioned. Most U.S. colleges and universities have policies in place that ensure that video content is captioned for all courses that have students who are deaf or hard of hearing and have requested an accommodation.  However, if these suits are successful, they raise the bar significantly. With public videos you do not know in advance when viewers will need captioning, so it makes sense to provide captions when the videos are published. Only providing captioning after a request is made means that those who need the captions need to wait for a response and cannot watch the video immediately, as other visitors to the site would. This can be seen as a form of discrimination against deaf and hard of hearing viewers.
  • Second, the quality of the captions is important. NAD provides several examples of “inaccurate” and “unintelligible” captions on Harvard and MIT websites, many of which were generated using YouTube’s auto-captioning feature. YouTube auto-captions attempt to use speech recognition to transcribe and caption video, but the results are notoriously poor. Some might argue that inaccurate captions are better than nothing, but the rationale put forth by the lawsuits is that providing inaccurate captions is also a form of discrimination; if you provide high quality educational video but the captions are inaccurate, you are in effect discriminating against those who need the captions to learn from the content.

 AST will continue to gather information from universities, legal experts, and educational technology experts about these suits, and will provide a follow-on article in the coming days. In the meantime, educators should review our whitepaper entitled A Captioning Guide for Higher Education, which covers many of the topics discussed above. Please contact us if you have any questions or suggestions for additional discussion on this topic.

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