The Last Resort: Harvard & M.I.T. Sued Over Video Captioning [link]

I used to talk about the legal ramifications of having an inaccessible website a lot more. However, WebAIM’s “Hierarchy for Motivating Change” helped me realize there were better arguments in favor of accessibility. That said, sometimes a story is too big to ignore. From the February 12 New York Times:

Advocates for the deaf on Thursday filed federal lawsuits against Harvard and M.I.T., saying both universities violated antidiscrimination laws by failing to provide closed captioning in their online lectures, courses, podcasts and other educational materials.

Both universities are alleged to have provided insufficient text alternatives for online courses, making it impossible for hearing-impaired users to take their courses. ((In the spirit of universal design: This also makes it much harder for users to search for specific references in the course, review the contents of the course, and access materials over a slow internet connection that can’t stream video. Seeing that “Massive Online Open Courses” claim to expand the reach of higher education, this last one seems particularly relevant.)) It’s rare that accessibility-related cases make the news, but I suspect this new case may go down alongside National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corp, another major case involving lack of text-alternatives on a website.

This is really disappointing for two reasons. First, suing was a last resort and only came after both universities ignored advocates:

Despite repeated requests by the [National Association of the Deaf], the complaints say, the two universities provide captioning in only a fraction of the materials, “and even then, inadequately.”

Second, Harvard and M.I.T. are supposedly the leaders in moving higher education online:

The case highlights the increasingly important role of online materials in higher education. M.I.T. and Harvard have extensive materials available free online, on platforms like YouTube, iTunesU, Harvard@Home and MIT OpenCourseWare. In addition, the two universities are the founding partners of edX, a nonprofit that offers dozens of MOOCs, or massive open online courses, free to students around the world.

Video-captioning is certainly a time-intensive venture, but these universities undoubtedly have the resources to do it and should know better. (In fact, they did since they had been told of the problems before now.) If you provide important videos on your website, it’s crucial that you find a way to provide an equivalent text alternative to your content so that hearing-impaired users have access to it.

Read “Harvard and M.I.T. Are Sued Over Lack of Closed Captions” from the New York Times.

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