The Harvard Content Accessibility Lawsuit

Courthouse with Decorative Statues

Here are some fast facts about the recently settled high profile web content accessibility lawsuits filed against Harvard and MIT.  Both of these lawsuits were officially settled in February 2020 by way of consent decrees.  Each school agreed to a new accessibility standard for all future content. They also agreed to bring all existing content up to that standard. This result will hopefully help define, and ultimately move the internet toward, a more universal standard of accessibility. 

What Were These Accessibility Lawsuits About?

These federal class action lawsuits, filed by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), alleged that free educational video content provided by MIT and Harvard did not include adequate accommodations for the deaf and hard of hearing. They alleged that the provided captioning was insufficient. And that the lack of sufficient captions violated the terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act.

What Made Them Unique?

These cases were unique, partly, because of the captions they dealt with. The captions in question were software generated captions provided by the video hosts—which are very often inaccurate and difficult to use. So these lawsuits weren’t asking for accommodations to be made, but rather for the existing accommodations to be able to provide an equal experience for all of its users. 

These cases were also some of the first web accessibility cases to involve organizations of higher education.  This content’s educational nature makes its accessibility particularly important.

What Does This Mean for Web and Content Accessibility?

This result means that content accessibility considerations must provide an equal experience for all users.   It is not enough just to have captions—the captions must be accurate and functional.  This corresponds with the language used in the ADA and in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. 

Looking toward the future, one can infer that other accessibility options, such as transcripts and descriptive alt-tags, will be held to the same standard moving forward. Hopefully, we can all look forward to more inclusive, functional, and dynamic content as content accessibility standards continue to take shape.

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