Why you can’t discuss online learning without acknowledging this

The U.S. is not the only country with such regulations. Many others, including the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and more, have similar guidelines. But the U.S. often serves as a bellwether for such issues—where U.S. institutions are facing such challenges, similar challenges are likely to soon emerge elsewhere.

So what should educational institutions do to make their campuses, both physical and virtual, friendly to disabled students while protecting themselves from similar lawsuits?

The Black and White Answer

The Harvard, MIT, and Netflix cases all make it clear that any public-facing materials must be properly captioned. This is no longer a nice-to-have: any campus that is not working on getting all of its public-facing materials captioned to ADA-508 compliance is sitting on a ticking time bomb. This isn’t just a matter of academic materials, either: schools should be looking at their marketing materials, alumni relations, and campus news videos as well.

The Shades of Gray

But what about the material that’s not public facing? Library and archival footage require special access privileges; course materials are usually restricted to just the students taking the classes. So far, there have not been any cases challenging this. At the moment, it may be safe to leave materials uncaptioned until a student asks for an accommodation, the same way schools do not necessarily keep every book on hand in Braille.

But that does not necessarily mean that this is the wisest course. Treating compliance issues in a tactical manner can be costly in one-off transcriptions, time, and potential confusion. Being reactive rather than proactive leaves administrators scrambling at one of the busiest times of the year each time a new semester starts. Increasingly, schools are starting to treat the issue strategically. Automated transcription ordering is now embedded in some video portals, making it easier to mass-caption whole swaths of the video catalog. A best practice would be to start with the core curriculum for the maximum bang for the buck, and then work outwards, to create a fully compliant catalog across the institution.

Not Just One Population Served

Once videos are properly captioned, schools often find that their students with disabilities are not the only ones to benefit from accurate captioning. A study of subtitles in the UK found that 80 percent of people using closed captioning are not actually deaf or hard of hearing. Captioning turns out to have plenty of additional benefits:

  • Captions make it easier to understand dense technical terms, fast speakers, accents, or other challenging audio tracks.
  • Viewers for whom English is a second language or with learning disabilities find written captions easier to follow.
  • Students are able to watch videos in sound-sensitive locations, such as libraries.
  • Captions increase viewer engagement .
  • Interactive transcripts make video content searchable within the video itself (for greater understanding), throughout the video portal (for better discovery), or even on the web (for increased SEO).

Captioning video content makes that content more accessible, discoverable, and usable by the entire student and staff body. Not only is it the required thing to do—it’s also the right thing to do.

eSchool Media Contributors

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