Landmark Agreements Establish New Model for Online Accessibility in Higher Education and Business
Settlement with MIT Follows Similar Agreement with Harvard University to Caption Online Content
Agreements Represent the Most Comprehensive Set of Online Accessibility Requirements
BOSTON—The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) announced today a landmark settlement with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that institutes a series of new guidelines to make the university’s website and online resources accessible for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. The settlement follows a similar agreement with Harvard University in November 2019, which together represent the most comprehensive set of online accessibility requirements in higher education and provide a new model for ensuring worldwide online and digital accessibility in academia and business for people who are deaf and hard of hearing.
MIT, one of the most celebrated academic research institutes in the world, has agreed to provide industry standard captioning for publicly-available online content, including video and audio content posted on MIT.edu as well as MIT’s YouTube, Vimeo, and Soundcloud pages, certain live-streaming events and online courses such as Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), MITx and MIT OpenCourseWare.
The terms of the settlement are included within a consent decree, which can be enforced by the court. The court must approve the consent decree before it may become effective.
MIT must also implement a public process to manage these requests. MIT is also required to submit reports every six months beginning in June 2020 to NAD and the Disability Law Center with information about the number of requests received, among other details.
This settlement was reached four years after this litigation began in 2015, when it was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Massachusetts as a class action lawsuit. The lawsuit was prompted by the recognition that, notwithstanding the description of MIT’s online resources as “open and available to the world,” many of its videos and audio recordings lacked captions or used inaccurate captions. MIT had no published policies in place to ensure these learning tools were accessible to people who are deaf and hard of hearing. In the United States alone, there are approximately 50 million deaf and hard of hearing people.
During the litigation, MIT filed a motion to dismiss the case. In response the court ruled that federal laws prohibiting disability discrimination covered MIT’s online content.
The named plaintiffs in this class action lawsuit, NAD, C. Wayne Dore, Christy Smith and Lee Nettles, were represented by Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, the Disability Law Center, the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, and also the NAD.
“The settlements with MIT and Harvard usher in a new era of accessible online learning in higher education. The civil rights mandate is clear - all colleges and universities must ensure that the video and audio content on their websites are accessible through quality captioning.” said Howard A. Rosenblum, Chief Executive Officer, National Association of the Deaf.
“Providing equal access through new and evolving technologies is at the core of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This announcement opens up a huge new world of learning for the tens of millions of people who were previously unable to access MIT’s wealth of online educational resources,” said Arlene B. Mayerson, Directing Attorney at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund.
“These agreements with MIT and Harvard are ground-breaking and historic, opening new doorways in learning for deaf and hard-of-hearing students and professionals and setting a new standard for civil rights enforcement for accessibility in online learning. We urge other institutions that share their research, case studies, and course work to the public to follow this precedent to ensure their content is accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people, worldwide,” said Joseph M. Sellers who heads the civil rights practice at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll.
“There’s no excuse for any institution to shortchange the millions of people who are deaf and hard of hearing. We cannot pick and choose what types of accessibility we want to provide—it’s a fundamental right that everyone deserves. We’re pleased the agreement ensures all learners will be treated equally,” said Amy F. Robertson, Co-Executive Director of the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center.
“These agreements represent the most comprehensive framework for ensuring that higher education institutions make their online and digital resources available for the deaf and hard of hearing. Nobody should be denied the opportunity to an education because of a disability, and the digital doors of MIT are now open for everyone,” said Marlene Sallo, Executive Director of the Disability Law Center.