February 12, 2015

The National Association of the Deaf on Thursday slapped Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology with putative class actions in Massachusetts federal court, accusing them of discriminating against deaf and hard-of-hearing people by not properly captioning their open online courses and other online content.

The suits claims the prestigious schools are breaking the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act by denying deaf people access to thousands of free videos and audio tracks featuring campus talks by President Barack Obama and Bill Gates, self-help talks, and semesters’-worth of courses.

While the content is allegedly available for free to anyone with an Internet connection, some of the videos — including a Harvard program on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, a 2013 Harvard Q&A with Bill Gates and a 2013 MIT discussion with MIT professor Noam Chomsky — don’t have closed captions, the suits say.

Meanwhile, other videos allegedly have inaccurate captioning that confuses viewers. For example, a video featuring an Obama visit to MIT features him saying, “got down on dollars ok,” even though he actually said “go down on the solar cell,” according to a statement that the plaintiffs issued on Thursday. In another, of Lady Gaga’s visit to the Harvard campus, a student’s mention of “on our campus” is allegedly transcribed as “hot Campen good.”

“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,” NAD CEO Howard A. Rosenblum said in a Thursday statement. “All they have to do is provide accurate captioning to such online educational content, yet they provide no or inaccurate captioning which is contrary to these schools’ ideals of excellence and service to all.”

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