Settlement Reached in Suit Over Video Captioning at Harvard University

The suit filed by the National Association of the Deaf alleged that many of Harvard's online videos, courses and podcasts did not include captions or were inaccurately transcribed

Harvard University agreed to make its website and online courses friendlier to those who are deaf or hard of hearing as part of a settlement announced Wednesday in a federal lawsuit.

The suit, filed in 2015 by the National Association of the Deaf, alleged that many of Harvard's online videos, courses and podcasts did not include captions or were inaccurately transcribed. By offering the content to the public without captions, the suit alleged, Harvard was violating federal civil rights laws protecting those with disabilities.

"As Harvard learned through this lawsuit, universities and colleges are on notice that all aspects of their campus including their websites must be accessible to everyone," Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the association, said in a statement.

Harvard said it's pleased with the "amicable resolution." Expanding access to knowledge and making online learning accessible is of "vital importance" to universities across the nation, the Ivy League school said in a statement.

"Our websites provide a wealth of opportunities for our community members to communicate and to share ideas, and we want these websites to be available to everyone who wishes to access them," the university said.

After failing to get the case dismissed, Harvard adopted a policy in April promising to provide captions for new online videos and other educational programs beginning Dec. 1. Under the settlement, it also must add captions for existing content dating to January 2019 and must provide live captions for events that are streamed online.

The requirement extends across the breadth of Harvard's sprawling internet presence, including the courses, videos and audio recordings it creates for its own website, along with those it shares on YouTube, Vimeo and other outside platforms. It does not apply to content Harvard shares but had no part in creating.

The suit's plaintiffs also included four individuals who said they were unable to access Harvard's audio and video offerings on YouTube, iTunes, SoundCloud and other websites created by the university and its divisions.

A judge rejected Harvard's attempt to dismiss the suit in 2016, and later rejected the school's argument that its websites do not constitute a physical "public accommodation" covered by federal civil rights laws. The judge ruled that Harvard's online are offerings can be seen as an extension of the campus.

The National Association of the Deaf filed a similar suit against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2015, also alleging that its online content was inaccessible to those with hearing disabilities. That suit, also being heard in Massachusetts' federal court, has yet to be resolved.

The lawsuits join efforts by the federal government to make university offerings accessible as more offer online programs to the public.

The U.S. Justice Department found in 2015 that edX, an online platform created by Harvard and MIT, failed to make its courses accessible to those with vision or hearing disabilities. The program settled with agency and agreed to several measures meant to boost accessibility.

In 2017, the University of California, Berkeley, decided to restrict public access to thousands of online videos after the Justice Department ordered it to provide captions. Once removed from public view, the videos were no longer subject to the order.

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