Accessing Accessibility

Earlier this month, Inside Higher Ed ran a piece describing the circumstances that led UC Berkeley to delete more than 20,000 lectures from public view.

For those of us who missed it, the gist of it is: Berkeley has, for years, been posting video content online for the students, faculty, and the “public.” In Fall 2016, these videos were found to be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Strangely, it seems it had never occurred to the University that among these individuals (to whom they have a legal obligation) were people with disabilities. These videos were not compliant with speech readers. They were not captioned or transcribed. They did not provide options for high-contrast visibility. They were, as the Department of Justice determined, inaccessible. Rather than update this material, in March 2017 the University decided to remove the videos and place their content behind a paywall.

There has been a good deal of outcry about the removal of this content. I took issue with the framing of this Inside Higher Ed piece (because it seemed to suggest that there is something wrong with a University being held accountable for the content they produce and that people with disabilities are outrageous for asserting their legal right to access) but the tone has been echoed in other coverage I’ve seen online.

Just today the announcement that the “20,000 unfairly deleted… lectures” have been copied “rescued” by LBRY and again made “available for free on its website,” suggests that the question of whether the videos have been saved is somehow more important than the question of who can make use of them.

Look: I agree it sucks that a major University would rather delete/hide content behind a paywall. But if you are lamenting the loss of these resources, you should acknowledge that those feelings of frustration – over a lack of access to important and edifying content –  echo the concerns raised by members of the deaf and deaf-blind community who initiated this process.

Berkeley has been clear that there were a number of reasons why the content was removed. Yes, the cost associated with updating older and less-used videos to make it accessible, but also because of broader campus concerns regarding intellectual property.

We have an obligation to create a nuanced commitment to free and open access: one that considers accessibility more broadly. It isn’t open if everyone can’t make use of it. It isn’t accessible if it’s not accessible to everyone.

I’m disappointed that a major University, when confronted with this question did not commit to a model of comprehensive Open Access. They could have developed a plan for making all content available. Rather than undo their mistakes (over 20,000 of them) and to caption and otherwise make accessible the lectures to their students, faculty, and the broader community, they’ve locked up their ADA compliant content and removed the rest.

I’m also disappointed with an online community that would decry the deletion of videos, but not their lack of accessibility. How narrow is your definition of access that you don’t consider this lawsuit a matter of OA? How legitimate is your commitment to Open Access if it is limited to a subset of the community? How committed are you to removing barriers to information if you only remove barriers that prohibit your own access?

These questions have been rattling around in my mind for the past few weeks as I’ve come across article after article repeating the same refrain, “What a tragedy! What a loss! People with disabilities are ruining it for everybody!”

I can agree that we need better solutions than simply deleting vast amounts of content. We need to make information available, without an exorbitant price tag. But the lesson from this should be that we need more dynamic and effective tools that allow us to make educational content accessible in multiple ways. We should be committing ourselves to creating comprehensively open access content, not blaming the community that has revealed the flaws in our own conception of access.

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