National Association of the Deaf Sues Harvard and MIT for Discrimination in Public Online Content

(Video description and caption file transcript are available on the YouTube page.)

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and three deaf and hard of hearing individuals filed federal class action lawsuits today against Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), charging that the schools discriminate against deaf and hard of hearing people by failing to caption the vast and varied array of online content they make available to the general public, including massive open online courses (MOOCs).

The cases, filed in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, assert that these universities violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act by denying deaf and hard of hearing people access to thousands of videos and audio tracks that each university makes publicly available, for free, on broad-ranging topics of general interest.  These include, for example, campus talks by luminaries such as President Barack Obama and Microsoft founder Bill Gates; educational videos made by MIT students for use by K-12 students; “self-help” talks; entire semesters’-worth of courses; and regular podcasts such as the “HBR IdeaCast” by the Harvard Business Review.  The universities boast that their content is available free to anyone with an Internet connection.  Millions of people have visited the websites.

“Online content represents the next frontier for learning and lifelong education,” said Howard A. Rosenblum, NAD’s CEO. “Yet both 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. 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.”

“Federal law prohibits MIT and Harvard from denying individuals with disabilities the benefits of their programs and services, including those provided to the public on the Internet,” said Timothy Fox, Executive Director of the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center and a lawyer for the plaintiffs in both cases.  “Both laws contain requirements for ‘auxiliary aids and services,’ including captioning, where necessary to ensure effective communication with individuals with a disability.”

“It is right that Harvard and MIT, which both receive millions of dollars of federal tax support, are mandated by our civil rights laws to provide equal access to their programs and services,” said Bill Lann Lee, plaintiffs’ lawyer on both cases and a former head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.  Lee added, “The civil rights laws apply not only to services offered in brick and mortar places. They require equal access to electronic services on the Internet that modern technology makes possible.”

Arlene Mayerson, Directing Attorney for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund who was intimately involved in drafting the ADA and a lawyer for plaintiffs in the MIT case, said, “If you are a hearing person, you are welcomed into a world of lifelong learning through access to a community offering videos on virtually any topic imaginable, from climate change to world history or the arts.No captions is like no ramp for people in wheelchairs or signs stating ‘people with disabilities are not welcome.'”

“Harvard and MIT systematically discriminate against people who are deaf and hard of hearing and perpetuate the isolation of people with disabilities that the ADA was meant to eliminate,” said Christine M. Griffin, Executive Director of the Disability Law Center in Boston, Massachusetts.  “Our hope is that this lawsuit will change not only Harvard’s and MIT’s practices, but set an example for other universities to follow. These lawsuits seek to reform conduct. They do not seek money damages.”

Many videos simply aren’t captioned at all. For example, 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 about the leaks attributable to Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning all lack closed captions.

“Worse still,” said attorney Timothy Fox, “a sampling of the videos available illustrates the problem with inaccurate captioning, making them confusing and sometimes completely unintelligible.”

For example, in a Harvard Institute of Politics discussion about the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said, “…these were either the government or partners of the government…” but was transcribed as saying, “the square governmental Oct ago.”

Screenshot of Harvard University video: Ebola: Can We Avoid A Global Pandemic?

In a video of students welcoming Lady Gaga to the Harvard campus, a student said, “…on our campus…” but was transcribed as saying, “hot Campen good.”

Screenshot Harvard University video: Lady Gaga Visits Harvard Captions

In an October 2009 visit to the MIT campus, President Obama said, “…go down on the solar cell…” but was transcribed as saying, “got down on dollars ok…”

Screenshot of MIT video: President Obama at MIT

The cases, NAD v. Harvard and NAD v. MIT, were filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Western Division. The case numbers are 3:15-cv-30023 and 3:15-cv-30024, respectively.

The MIT Plaintiffs are represented by the NAD; the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC); the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF); Lewis, Feinberg, Lee, Renaker & Jackson, P.C.; and The Disability Law Center (DLC).  The Harvard Plaintiffs are represented by the same lawyers, with the exception of DREDF.

View the Harvard complaint (PDF). View the MIT complaint (PDF).

For interviews with attorneys and plaintiffs, call or email the following contacts:

East Coast:
Christine M. Griffin
Disability Law Center, Inc. – Massachusetts / 617-320-9985

West Coast:
Bill Lann Lee
Lewis, Feinberg, Lee, Renaker & Jackson / 510-839-6824


National Association of the Deaf (NAD)
The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) is the nation’s premier civil rights organization of, by and for deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the United States of America. NAD represents the estimated 48 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing and is based in Silver Spring, MD.

Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC)
The Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center is a Denver-based membership organization that has the goal of ensuring that everyone can fully and independently participate in our nation’s civic life without discrimination based on race, gender, disability, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF)
Founded in 1979 by people with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities, the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF) is a national law and policy center based in Berkeley, CA and is dedicated to protecting and advancing the civil rights of people with disabilities.

Lewis, Feinberg, Lee, Renaker & Jackson P.C.
Lewis, Feinberg, Lee, Renaker & Jackson P.C. is a national law firm based in Oakland, CA that represents plaintiffs in civil rights, employment discrimination, ERISA employee benefit and pension litigation, and wage and hour overtime litigation.

Disability Law Center, Inc.
The Disability Law Center (DLC) is the Protection and Advocacy agency for Massachusetts.  DLC is a private, non-profit organization responsible for providing protection and advocacy for the rights of Massachusetts residents with disabilities.