The University of California at Berkeley has responded to a request for comment regarding a proposed consent decree filed by the U.S. Department of Justice over the school’s violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The DOJ filed a proposed consent degree in federal court with the Regents of the University of California on behalf of the Berkeley campus after the school violated the ADA by failing to make online content accessible to people with disabilities, the DOJ announced this week.

“U.C. Berkeley is the home of the Disability Rights/Independent Living Movement,” said UC Berkeley spokesperson Janet Gilmore in an email. “We are proud of that distinction and are committed culturally and technically to ensuring that disabled people can equally access Berkeley’s digital access.”

“[The plaintiff] feels like he is less of a human being because he cannot use the same content that is readily accessible to individuals who are not deaf.”

Department of Justice statement

The DOJ’s complaint spotlights people with hearing, vision and manual disabilities who have had trouble fully taking part in UC Berkeley-sponsored online content.

Adam Jarshow is a deaf man who teaches at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, the government said in its complaint. Jarshow would like to share UC’s free educational content with his students but says he cannot do so because it is not accessible.

“He feels like he is less of a human being because he cannot use the same content that is readily accessible to individuals who are not deaf,” according to the DOJ.

In addition to making its online content on YouTube, Berkeley X, university websites, videos and podcasts accessible, upon the consent decree’s approval, UC Berkeley will be required to revise its policies, train relevant personnel, designate a web accessibility coordinator, conduct accessibility testing of its online content and hire an independent auditor to evaluate the accessibility of its content.

Falling on deaf ears

The court action stems from a complaint filed to the DOJ in 2014 from the National Association of the Deaf alleging that “thousands” of UC Berkeley’s online courses, lectures and other content were inaccessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. The government found the complaint valid, and in 2016 the DOJ notified UC Berkeley that it was violating the ADA. The DOJ told UC Berkeley that it needed to take measures necessary to come into compliance with the federal civil rights law. By 2021, the DOJ said that UC Berkeley still had not addressed many of these problems.

People with hearing, vision or manual disabilities have tools that they can use to access online words, images and other materials. However, institutions still need to make sure their online content is “readable” by these interactive tools.

For example, the government found that the way certain websites were organized made them difficult for someone with a screen-reader to navigate. Math equations, for example, were not always defined in a comprehensible way for people with vision disabilities. The tag structures of some PDFs were also difficult for screen-readers to access.

A screenshot of UC Berkeley’s YouTube channel shows some of the programming available to visitors. The Department of Justice alleges much of the content either lacks captions or relies on YouTube’s “inaccurate or incomplete” captioning capability, rendering it problematic to those who have visual or auditory disabilities. (Image via YouTube)

Other sites such as the university’s YouTube channel, which has thousands of videos related to admissions, studying abroad, sporting events, symposia, graduation ceremonies and other programming were inaccessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. On YouTube, UC content either lacks captions or relies on YouTube’s “inaccurate or incomplete” captioning capability.

“Although UC Berkeley can remediate inaccurate or incomplete automatic captioning rendered by YouTube,” said the DOJ, “UC fails to do so.”

Lectures and other programming shared on Apple’s iTunes were also not ADA compliant, the government said.

In its complaint, the government alleges that the university “had knowledge that there was a significant likelihood that its online content did not comply with the ADA, but nonetheless … failed to implement necessary corrective measures and continues to discriminate against individuals with disabilities.”

‘Looking for ways to improve access’

Gilmore says that UC Berkeley has taken numerous steps to improve public access to as broad a population as possible over the last few years.

“That effort remains underway, as we are always looking for ways to improve access for all audiences, adjusting our work as new technologies, tools and best practices emerge,” said Gilmore. “Our work with the DOJ, which stems from a 2014 investigation, is part of that effort.”

A screenshot of the BerkeleyX homepage, one of the sites that the DOJ says falls afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The university would have to make such content ADA accessible under a proposed consent decree.

In July, UC Berkeley launched a committee focused on making sure that the campus’s digital infrastructure is accessible to everyone. The Information Technology Accessibility Policy Advisory Committee will focus on bringing the school’s digital domain into the same accessibility as its buildings, the university said.

In 2018, the university hired a full-time ADA compliance officer, introduced an automated testing tool that monitors websites for accessibility issues, and adopted tools to better assist instructors with website content creation that follows accessibility guidelines. Several other changes were implemented between 2018 and 2022.

This year, UC Berkeley spent $2 million to support a three-year project to bring 200 of the school’s most traveled, public-facing Berkeley websites into compliance.

The consent decree still requires court approval.