The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights recently issued a FAQ in its continuing effort to address civil rights issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. The new guidance focused on disability accommodations, Title IX, and harassment issues.
The overall message was to again remind postsecondary institutions to “stay the course” with their civil rights obligations. Institutions must continue to engage in the interactive process and provide disability accommodations that do not fundamentally alter the academic program and/or are undue burdens. Institutions must also continue to receive, investigate, and resolve harassment complaints. Institutions should adapt their policies to the new distance learning environment, and, if they do, they must inform students, faculty, and staff of any changes.
OCR also offered practical advice for how institutions can meet their civil rights obligations (and take advantage of new technology in doing so): Continue reading OCR Provides Practical Pointers for Postsecondary Institutions to Meet Civil Rights Obligations In Distance Learning Environments
As with all crises, this pandemic is a rapidly evolving situation that is forcing schools to quickly implement new policies and practices, often operating on limited information and without the usual procedural safeguards and vetting. Such an environment creates a risk of the unintended consequences of those new policies/procedures being overlooked, resulting in potentially discriminatory effects to students.
Recognizing this risk, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights published guidance on March 16, 2020, reminding schools that students’ civil rights must be safeguarded during responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. OCR’s guidance encourages schools to take measures to protect against COVID-19, but to do so in a manner that is free from discrimination and continues to accommodate people with disabilities.
The Department of Education focused on a few key areas as examples of potential pitfalls: Continue reading Department of Education Issues Guidance on Safeguarding Civil Rights During COVID-19 Pandemic
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: Continue reading Million Dollar Settlements of Closed Captioning Website Accessibility Lawsuits Highlight Need for Dual Approach