University May Remove Online Content to Avoid Disability Law

U.S. Justice Department finds that Berkeley MOOCs and YouTube content don't meet federal requirements.

September 20, 2016

The University of California, Berkeley, has announced that it may eliminate free online content rather than comply with a U.S. Justice Department order that it make the content accessible to those with disabilities.

The content in question is all free and is for the general public to use. "The department’s findings do not implicate the accessibility of educational opportunities provided to our enrolled students," said a statement on the situation by Cathy Koshland, vice chancellor for undergraduate education.

While the university has not made a final decision, she said, it may not be able to afford complying with the Justice Department's recommendations on how to make the online material accessible.

"In many cases the requirements proposed by the department would require the university to implement extremely expensive measures to continue to make these resources available to the public for free," she wrote. "We believe that in a time of substantial budget deficits and shrinking state financial support, our first obligation is to use our limited resources to support our enrolled students. Therefore, we must strongly consider the unenviable option of whether to remove content from public access."

The announcement added that Berkeley hoped to avoid that path through additional discussions with the Justice Department.

The material in question involves courses provided by Berkeley through the edX platform for massive open online courses, and videos on YouTube and iTunes University.

The Department of Justice found that much of this online material is in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires colleges to make their offerings accessible to people with disabilities.

The department investigation followed complaints by two individuals who are deaf -- one of them a faculty member at Gallaudet University and one at its school for elementary and secondary school students. Both said that they are unable to use Berkeley online material because it has not been formatted for use by people with hearing disabilities.

Berkeley released the Justice Department letter finding the university in violation of ADA. The letter outlined numerous concerns about issues related to those who are deaf as well as those who have visual disabilities:

  • Many videos do not have captions.
  • Many videos lack "an alternative way to access images or visual information (e.g., graphs, charts, animations or URLs on slides), such as audio description, alternative text, PDF files or Word documents).
  • Many documents "associated with online courses were inaccessible to individuals with vision disabilities who use screen readers because the document was not formatted properly."
  • Some videos that had automatically generated captions were "inaccurate and incomplete."

The review of online material involved 16 MOOCs available in March and April 2015 and another 10 in January of this year. The Justice Department also based its analysis on reviews of 543 videos on Berkeley's YouTube channel, and on 99 lectures in 27 courses on iTunes U.

The letter noted that Berkeley makes resources available to those creating online content who want that content to be accessible. But the letter faulted Berkeley for not requiring such steps.

A quick search of YouTube videos on various college and university channels suggest that there are many videos without captions.

As word has started to spread of the Justice Department findings, many criticized the Justice Department.

The blog of Reason, a libertarian magazine, wrote, "Special thanks to the DOJ -- fulfilling its role here as the Handicapper General -- for ensuring equal access to public education, where 'equal access' is defined as 'no access for anybody.'"

But some on social media defended the Justice Department.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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