Harvard to Caption Online Video Content Following Lawsuit Settlement


Harvard reached a settlement with the National Association of the Deaf Wednesday in a 2015 lawsuit alleging that the University failed to adequately close caption its publicly accessible online video and audio content.

According to the February 2015 complaint in federal court, much of Harvard’s free online content, which includes podcasts and recorded lectures, either lacked closed captioning or such captions were “unintelligible.” The complaint argued that this deprives deaf and hard of hearing individuals of “benefits” afforded to those without disabilities. It also alleged that Harvard violated obligation of universities receiving federal funding to “provide people with disabilities equal access to their programs and activities” under the 1973 United States Rehabilitation Act.

Per the settlement reached last week, the University must take steps to improve the accessibility of content posted to its official website and associated media platforms. Harvard agreed to caption Harvard-produced content posted on or after Dec. 1, 2019 to University websites or to associated video websites. For pieces of content posted earlier, Harvard will provide captions within five business days of a specific request for captions from an individual wishing to access that content. Harvard will also provide captions for livestreams of University-wide events.

Harvard will also be expected to pay attorneys fees for the plaintiffs, which total more than $1.5 million.


Howard A. Rosenblum, NAD’s chief executive officer, said in a press release that providing closed captions is a vital part of making learning accessible for the deaf and hard of hearing.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Following NAD’s initial lawsuit, Harvard filed a motion to dismiss which was denied in 2016. In 2018, Harvard filed a motion for judgment, portions of which — including an argument that Harvard websites were not “places of public accommodation” — were again denied in April 2019. Harvard and NAD engaged in settlement discussions during the months following the ruling.

University spokesperson Nate Herpich wrote in an emailed statement that the settlement aligns with other digital accessibility initiatives at Harvard, namely, the captioning previously provided for HarvardX online courses and the school’s Digital Accessibility Policy introduced in April. The Digital Accessibility Policy addressed captioning for content posted to Harvard websites.

“Harvard is pleased to confirm the amicable resolution of the lawsuit brought by the National Association for the Deaf (NAD) regarding online captioning for video and audio content. The settlement is grounded in Harvard’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and belonging,” Herpich wrote.

“Our websites provide a wealth of opportunities for our community members to communicate and to share ideas, and we want these websites to be available to everyone who wishes to access them. This agreement with the NAD builds on the University’s longstanding work toward ensuring a campus that is accessible and welcoming,” he added.

—Staff writer Lucy Liu can be reached at