The online videos from the University of California at Berkeley offered a free sample of world-class instruction in topics such as computer science, bioengineering and public health. Through YouTube and other platforms, the public could experience a bit of Berkeley from the comfort of their own homes.
But the Department of Justice found last year that much of this online trove of higher education was not adequately accessible to people who are blind, deaf or hard of hearing, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
On Wednesday, the university began to restrict public access to thousands of these lecture videos and podcasts — a shift that UC-Berkeley officials say addresses concerns raised in the federal review.
The federal findings were not the lone factor in UC-Berkeley’s decision. The university said that it also took into account usage statistics and that it was concerned about protecting intellectual property. But the investigation and the questions that prompted it highlight broader issues about online content from colleges and universities and who can access it.
“In today’s society, the Internet is such a huge part in being able to participate fully in civic life,” said Tim Fox, an attorney with the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, which was involved in the UC-Berkeley matter. “You just really need to have access to all the various resources that can be found now on the Internet. That’s true of persons who are deaf and hard of hearing as well.”
The Justice Department’s review was prompted by complaints about UC-Berkeley’s online content from two members of the National Association of the Deaf: Stacy Nowak and Glenn Lockhart. The department’s letter to the university in August described Nowak as a professor and doctoral student at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington. Lockhart works at the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center, based at Gallaudet.
Gallaudet said in a statement that it had “nothing to do” with UC-Berkeley’s decision but that it strongly supports efforts to improve access.
“The bottom line is that more people ought to have access to free academic teachings online, not fewer people,” the statement said.
In its review, the department looked at videos on UC-Berkeley’s YouTube page, finding that automatically generated captions weren’t complete or accurate, a barrier for those with hearing disabilities. Some videos also had issues that made them challenging for those with vision disabilities, such as low color contrast.
The department found that the university was in violation of the federal disabilities law because “significant portions of its online content are not provided in an accessible manner when necessary to ensure effective communication with individuals with hearing, vision or manual disabilities.”
On March 1, UC-Berkeley announced changes in its handling of video and podcast material. Cathy Koshland, vice chancellor for undergraduate education, wrote in a message posted online that the university had determined that instead of focusing on “legacy content” that was older and had limited use, it would try to create “new public content that includes accessible features.”
Koshland’s message said university officials would start on Wednesday to move public YouTube content to a channel that requires a login.
Proper captioning can be “resource intensive,” UC-Berkeley spokesman Roqua Montez said in an email.
Audio description for the blind is another technique that is “similarly resource intensive,” he wrote. “Our library includes classroom experiments, video, portraits, graphs, and other image-based material. It is our belief that the standard the [department] set includes both of these types of accommodations for all our content.”
With funding limited, Montez wrote, the university opted against spending money on old content. It will still continue to offer public online content through the platform edX.
It is not uncommon, Fox said, to find online content posted by universities that is inaccessible for those with hearing issues.
In 2015, advocates for the deaf alleged in lawsuits that Harvard and MIT had violated antidiscrimination laws because their online materials failed to provide closed captioning. The universities have said that they are committed to providing access.
Each circumstance is different, said Fox, but there are many ways to address concerns about accessibility.
“It’s not a dichotomy, where your only choices are immediately caption everything, or take down everything,” he said. “So we hope that people understand that.”