‘Landmark’ case improves online courses for the disabled

The U.S. Department of Justice announced today that it reached a settlement with edX, the platform created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University to offer online courses to the public.

The National Association of the Deaf filed federal lawsuits against Harvard University and MIT on Feb. 12 on behalf of four deaf and hard of hearing individuals who were unable to access the online content because there were either no captions (text of the words being spoken) or the captions were inaccurate, according to a Boston Globe article.

The lawsuit claimed the online courses and associated materials were not accessible to all people with disabilities, particularly for people who are deaf, blind or have fine motor skill deficits.

The edX platform basically provides a stockpile of mostly free audio and video recordings to the public from about 60 universities and institutions on a variety of topics, from business to computer sciences to nutrition.

Under the settlement agreement, the edX website and all other applications will be made accessible within 18 months, and edX will also be responsible to help other groups that post to the website ensure their content is accessible.

From the Justice Department’s press release:

“Critical portions of education are moving online, in tandem with the rest of our social experience.  This new, educational online world readily can, and should be, built from the outset in a way that does not discriminate against those with disabilities,” said U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz.  “Access to high quality education is one of the essential pillars of our democracy and to the well-being of our communities.  This agreement ensures that those with disabilities will not be left behind.”

From a statement by the National Federation of the Blind:

“We commend the United States Department of Justice for its commitment to equal access for all students, and we commend edX for agreeing to take the needed steps to provide that access,” said Federation President Mark A. Riccobono.

These lawsuits follow in the footsteps of a few other high-profile cases led by the National Association of the Deaf. For a similar lack of closed captioning, the national advocacy group has gone after Netflix and Apple’s iTunes in recent years. Based on those settlements, Netflix was required to caption all of its content by last September and Apple has until this June.

The Justice Department also gave the general public a few ways to learn more about disability laws or to lodge complaints:

To find out more about federal disability rights laws, call the Justice Department’s toll-free ADA information line at 800-514-0301 or 800-514-0383 (TDD), or access its ADA website at www.ada.gov.  ADA complaints, including those involving the inaccessibility of www.edx.org, may be filed by email to ada.complaint@usdoj.gov.

Reach Halle Stockton at 412-315-0263 or hstockton@publicsource.org. Follow her on Twitter @HalleStockton.