Skip to main content

Harvard and MIT sued for neglecting people with disabilities in online courses

Harvard and MIT sued for neglecting people with disabilities in online courses


Advocates say the lack of captions mean that 48 million deaf or hard of hearing Americans are denied access to educational courses

Share this story

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) is filing lawsuits against both Harvard and MIT for failing to provide adequate captions for their online educational material. The complaints allege that both universities have "denied access to this content to the approximately 48 million — nearly one out of five — Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing," and that in doing so have violated federal law.

"No captions is like no ramp for people in wheelchairs."

"If you are a hearing person, you are welcomed into a world of lifelong learning through access to a community offering videos on virtually any topic imaginable, from climate change to world history or the arts," said Arlene Mayerson, one of the lawyers taking the case against MIT. "No captions is like no ramp for people in wheelchairs or signs stating ‘people with disabilities are not welcome.'"

Both suits cover material including podcasts and online lectures, with the complaints stating that the content is "either not captioned or is inaccurately or unintelligibly captioned, making it inaccessible for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing." However, some of the lawsuits' accusations may be misguided. Examples of bad captioning cited by the NAD are actually produced by YouTube's automatic captioning system, not by Harvard or MIT.

An example of bad captioning created by YouTube's automatic mechanism. (NAD)

Christine Griffin, a co-counsel on the case and a director of the Disability Law Center in Boston, tells The Verge that this was immaterial. Harvard and MIT were both contacted multiple times about these and other problems, says Griffin, and that even if YouTube was directly responsible for these particular examples, it is the universities themselves that "have the ability and authority to make sure what gets posted is captioned and captioned accurately."

A spokesperson for Harvard told The New York Times that the university would not comment on the case but that it was waiting for the Justice Department this year to "provide much-needed guidance in this area." A spokesperson for MIT meanwhile said that the university was committed to making its online material accessible and would be providing captioning in all its most popular courses and new material.

The outcome wouldn't just affect Americans but deaf people around the world

If the lawsuits are successful, however, the outcome wouldn't just affect Americans, but deaf people around the world. Harvard and MIT are both founding members of edX, a nonprofit and open source platform for massive open online courses (MOOCs). Courses hosted on edX are available anywhere with internet access — and the same is true for the material that Harvard and MIT have posted to YouTube and iTunesU.

"The main issue here is simply equal access," said Griffin. "The laws we're saying these universities violate are not recent laws. They were passed twenty to forty years go. [Harvard and MIT] take millions and millions and millions of dollars of federal money and deaf people pay those taxes too."