A landmark case on accessibility involving one of the most iconic universities was just settled.

Four years after litigation began, The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) announced that Harvard University will be instituting a new series of guidelines to make the university’s site, online resources and live events accessible to those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Harvard University is now required to provide high-quality captions for its events which are livestreamed, content featured on third-party platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud and messaging being dispersed by department-sponsored student groups.

These comprehensive requirements are the most significant online accessibility requirements prescribed in higher education thus far. They go well beyond Harvard’s established digital accessibility policy, which the university announced in May.

This lawsuit represents a significant step forward for deaf and hard of hearing students and communities. Not only does this settlement confirm the importance of meeting the needs of students by requiring captioning; it even expresses the implications of inaccurate captioning.

More universities are now likely to react by turning to technology tools provided by Artificial Intelligence, including Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR).

“As Harvard learned through this lawsuit, universities and colleges are on notice that all aspects of their campus including their websites must be accessible to everyone,” said Howard A. Rosenblum, Chief Executive Officer, National Association of the Deaf. “Captioning video content is a basic form of access that opens up academic learning to not only deaf and hard of hearing people but the world. The National Association of the Deaf asks all who develop video content for the Internet to ensure access through quality captioning.”

The class action lawsuit was originally filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Massachusetts in 2015. It came as a result of Harvard’s online resources’, including videos and audio recordings, lack of captions or inaccurate captions.

Harvard responded by filing two motions to dismiss the case, but both times, the court ruled that federal laws prohibiting disability discrimination included Harvard’s online content.

Prior to the settlement, Harvard announced it would caption new content created on or after December 1 on its website. This settlement now requires that Harvard caption existing content posted on or after January 2019 within two years.

Additionally, for any content that is not already captioned but receives an accessibility request, Harvard must provide captions within five business days.

Harvard is also required to provide reports to the NAD and the Disability Law Center every six months starting in June. These reports must include the number of requests received and any changes made to accessibility policies.

“Open and equal access to evolving technology is essential if the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act is to be realized,” said Arlene B. Mayerson, Directing Attorney at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. “By committing to caption content on a vast array of research and learning, today that dream came a step closer as one of the top universities in the world opens their digital doors to millions of deaf and hard of hearing people.”

If you are unsure if your university is meeting the proper standards for captioning or accuracy, or need guidance about how to enhance your accessibility plan, please feel free to contact us.