Suits against Harvard, MIT spotlight flaws in closed captions

The prestigious schools serve as examples of a widespread problem across industries and sectors that fail to caption their online content, advocates say.

Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology were singled out for allegedly discriminating against deaf and hearing-impaired students for failing to caption online content, but advocates say the schools are examples of a pervasive, widespread problem.

Earlier this month, the National Association of the Deaf filed lawsuits against the prestigious universities, charging that the schools violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because they do not close caption their virtual content — or the subtitles are frequently incorrect.

But as more industries make multimedia a central component of their operations and websites, advocates for people with disabilities are hoping the lawsuits spur attention on hospitals, K-12 schools, and state and federal agencies to ensure they comply with the 1990 law, which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities.

“These aren’t the only two institutions violating the law,” said Christine Griffin, co-counsel on the case and executive director of the Disability Law Center in Massachusetts, where the lawsuits were filed.


“Federal agencies need to pay attention to this, state agencies need to pay attention, all educational institutions that are really beginning to develop their online access to courses,” Griffin continued. “This is the wave of the future, right?”

A search by a reporter on federal agency websites revealed that the Labor Department failed to caption its
Working Families Regional forums. The Department added a disclaimer noting it cannot vouch for the accuracy of information on the agency’s videos, which are hosted on YouTube.

On videos in which YouTube automatically translates audio on its closed captioning feature, a search found that the translations are often inaccurate.

Even on hospital websites, a reporter found several videos with incorrect captions. The words of Fay Kastrinos, a gastroenterologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital who was on video describing the risks of colon cancer, were garbled when the closed captioning feature was turned on. At one point, she says, “… and they depend on one’s personal history.” But the caption shows her saying, “… and there’s a pens on one’s personal history.”

Government agencies, universities and other industries “might have a lot of legacy content that’s not accessible, and to go back and fix all of that might be a pretty big undertaking,” said Nancy Horton, an information specialist at the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center. “But certainly in putting up new content, it makes good sense for them to put some guidelines in place.”


In K-12 schools, hearing-impaired students are routinely discriminated against because virtual courses and online materials do not include captions, advocates said.

A report issued in 2007 by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning advises, “Audio materials should be accompanied by a text transcript. Video materials should either have a transcript or be captioned to accommodate users with auditory handicaps.”

The report continues, “Students with disabilities should not be denied access to specific educational opportunities because the school is unwilling to make reasonable accommodations. Otherwise, the program could be found to be unlawfully discriminating.”

In October, the research nonprofit
released another report, this time stating that the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is doing more compliance monitoring of K-12 schools — but there are still gaping knowledge gaps.

“Very few people are fully aware of their obligations for making materials in online courses accessible,” said Raymond Rose, the author of both reports.


OCR officials said in a statement to EdScoop that they conducted compliance reviews of Youngstown State University and the University of Cincinnati, both in Ohio, and reached agreements in December with both schools to ensure their websites were accessible to people with disabilities.

Representatives for Harvard and MIT would not comment on pending litigation, but a spokesman for Harvard
has told the campus newspaper that the school is waiting for the Justice Department to issue new guidelines in June to include access to virtual content.

Guidance is imperative, experts say, because of the rapid technological advances every day.

“This lawsuit is a wake-up call for a lot of people to start looking what’s on their website,” Griffin said.


Correction: This story originally reported incorrectly that certain videos from the USDA and the DOT did not have closed captioning. The USDA’s Week in Review videos and DOT’s video featuring former Secretary Ray LaHood do include accurate captions. The agencies use a feature to manually upload subtitles on YouTube, and do not rely on YouTube’s transcription. The story also has been updated to reflect that the Department of Labor added a disclaimer that it cannot vouch for the accuracy of videos that are hosted on YouTube.

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