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Harvard, MIT Sued Over Lack of Captioning for Online Courses

The National Association of the Deaf filed two federal class actions complaints today. The suits -- against Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) -- allege that the universities discriminate against the deaf because their online content is not captioned, or is poorly or illegibly captioned.

This lack of captioning, according to the plaintiffs, deprives the 48 million deaf or hard-of-hearing Americans of the same educational opportunities as those who can hear. It also violates federal law, the lawsuits assert.

2 Disability Rights Laws at Issue

At issue are two federal laws: the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits an educational institution that receives federal funding from denying the benefits of its programs to disabled people. This prohibition extends to "all the operations" of a college or university, meaning the university can't discriminate against anyone, even people who don't attend.

The second law, the more familiar Americans With Disabilities Act, prohibits places of "public accommodation" -- which includes universities -- from discriminating based on a disability. The named plaintiffs, the same in each case, are individuals who are hard of hearing and thus can't benefit from the online content or online course offerings.

The complaint seeks class certification, alleging that the number of potential plaintiffs -- any deaf person who can't watch Harvard or MIT's online content because of the lack of captions -- is so large that they can't all be joined as parties in a normal lawsuit. The complaint also seeks an injunction requiring Harvard and MIT to caption their content.

Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, once the defendant schools have been properly served with the lawsuits, they will have 21 days to file an answer.

National Association of the Deaf v. Harvard University, class action complaint by FindLaw

National Association of the Deaf v. MIT, class action complaint by FindLaw