The National Association of the Deaf et al. v. Harvard, MIT

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On February 11, 2015, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and four deaf and hard of hearing individuals filed two federal class action lawsuits against Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), charging that the schools discriminate against deaf and hard of hearing people by failing to caption the vast and varied 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, for example, campus talks by luminaries such as President Barack Obama and Microsoft founder Bill Gates; educational videos made by MIT students for use by K-12 students; “self-help” talks; entire semesters’-worth of courses; and regular podcasts such as the “HBR IdeaCast” by the Harvard Business Review. The universities boast that their content is available free to anyone with an Internet connection. Millions of people have visited the websites.

The MIT Plaintiffs are represented by the NAD; the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC); the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF); and The Disability Law Center (DLC).  The Harvard Plaintiffs are represented by the same lawyers, with the exception of DREDF.

Each university moved to stay the case against it until the Department of Justice issued promised regulations governing website accessibility or to simply dismiss the case. The Department of Justice filed statements of interest in both cases supporting plaintiffs’ position that the universities’ provision of free online video content to the public discriminates against Deaf and hard of hearing individuals by failing to provide equal access in the form of captions. In decisions issued on February 16, 2016, Magistrate Judge Katherine A. Robertson recommended denial of the universities’ motions in full and included excellent language affirming the digital communication rights of people who are Deaf or hard of hearing. The court issued a lengthy decision in the Harvard case and adopted the same reasoning in the MIT case.

Key case documents:

For press coverage on the cases, see: The New York Times, Boston Globe, Reuters, Ability Magazine, FastCompany, UPIABC News, Boston Herald, The Huffington PostThe VergeThe Chronicle of Higher Education. and Harvard’s student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson.

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