Million Dollar Settlements of Closed Captioning Website Accessibility Lawsuits Highlight Need for Dual Approach

Massachusetts Institute of Technology is seeking approval to pay $1,000,000+ in attorneys’ fees to settle a putative class action alleging MIT’s website was inaccessible to people with hearing difficulties.  See Nat’l Assoc. of the Deaf et al. v. Mass. Inst. of Tech., 3:15-cv-30024-KAR (D. Mass. filed Feb. 12, 2015).  This comes just months after Harvard University preliminarily settled a nearly identical lawsuit for $1.575 million.  See Nat’l Assoc. of the Deaf et al. v. Harvard Univ., 3:15-cv-30023-KAR (D. Mass. filed Feb. 12, 2015).  Neither university admits liability or wrongdoing in the settlement agreements.

The complaints alleged each university lacked adequate closed captioning of videos and audio tracks on publicly availably websites in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  They alleged the lack of captioning hindered the ability of individuals with hearing difficulties to fully and equally enjoy the services and goods offered to the public via the websites. The complaints alleged that closed captioning of such content was a reasonable accommodation. After motion practice, the courts agreed these allegations constituted viable claims under Section 504 and the ADA, and the parties proceeded into discovery before settling.

In the settlement agreements, the universities promised to:

  • Provide captioning for all university-generated audio or video content in accordance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 Level AA.
  • Provide live captioning for events live-streamed publicly on their websites.
  • Implement/Maintain a policy and process for the public to request captioning of material on the website.
  • Provide links on each webpage that will direct users to a dedicated website accessibility landing page, through which people may report missing or bad captioning or to request further accommodations.
  • Train personnel on how to appropriately caption content.
  • Report progress of compliance to the National Association of the Deaf every six months.

MIT and Harvard are not alone—these terms accord settlements of similar lawsuits alleging inaccessibility of websites for people with mobility or vision impairments.  Additional terms from those settlements have included appointing a Website Accessibility Coordinator, requiring that all content posted by outside vendors meet a specified particular accessibility standard (e.g., WCAG 2.1 A, AA, or AAA), and periodically reviewing websites for accessibility issues.

Regardless of the type of disability involved, these settlements all highlight the increasing pressure for universities to 1) provide accessible websites and 2) implement policies and procedures to ensure websites are (and remain) accessible.  This dual approach embraces the process-oriented spirit of the ADA/Section 504, as well as helps ensure websites are accessible now and remain that way as technology advances.