accessible online learning

Making Online Continuing Education Accessible

In Legal Updates, News by ALDA News

accessible online learning An update from ALDA Legal:

Many jobs require licenses, and many license-holders must take continuing education classes to stay up to date and maintain their licenses. That’s certainly true for lawyers, but also true for teachers, accountants, engineers, architects, physicians, nurses, psychologists, pharmacists and no doubt many more. A lot of those courses are offered online, which is flexible, convenient and often considerably more affordable than in-person classes. But very few of those courses are captioned, meaning that those of us who are deaf or hard of hearing get limited benefit at best from those mandated investments of time and money.

I’ve been working for the past few months on efforts to change that. On behalf of eight deaf and hard of hearing lawyers, I sent letters to nine online legal-education providers. I pointed out that online material can be closed-captioned, just like television, enabling people to activate the captions at their option without changing the experience for anyone else. I asked whether their online material is captioned or can be made so on request. The follow-up question was whether, if captioning is not provided, that could be done.

I did get some positive responses. One major online provider said it had actually been providing captioning on request since 2018, and that its captions had been activated more than 20,000 times, a number suggesting that lots of people without hearing concerns elect captions. I suggested they update their advertising to reflect that availability. Three other providers indicated that they would begin to make captioning available, and all three appear to be taking positive steps to do so. 

The other providers ignored the requests. As has been my practice with work on behalf of ALDA, we try to work cooperatively to achieve accessibility, but we will not accept either “no” or “no answer.” So we are taking those non-responsive providers to court – one in Denver, one in Tampa, and three in Seattle. The cases don’t ask for damages, but only for accessibility for the individual attorney plaintiffs and for a class of similarly situated attorneys. The cases were filed just last week, so we haven’t received any responses yet from the defendant providers or their attorneys.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires “places of public accommodation” like movie theaters and live theaters to provide “effective communication,” but there is an ongoing disagreement among federal courts about whether online-only businesses are “places” for purposes of the ADA. Our argument is different. A separate provision of the ADA states that anyone who offers “courses” that are “related to licensing” must make those courses accessible to people with disabilities, and that obligation applies to everyone, no matter whether the businesses qualify as “places” or not. It seems self-evident that any course that satisfies requirements to maintain a professional license is “related to” that license and therefore covered by that specific provision.

It will be interesting to see whether the defendant providers try to fight. I think that once they realize a) that we’re serious, b) that we know what we’re talking about and c) it’s really pretty simple and inexpensive to provide captions, they will just do it.

On the other hand, I kind of hope one or more of them will put up a fight. Should they do so, and should we prevail, then we would have a nice legal precedent that can help not just lawyers but any deaf or hard of hearing person who needs continuing-education courses. Who knows – we might find that if we can understand them, the courses are even enjoyable and well worth the time and money. 

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