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Closed Captioning: Movie Theaters Federal Ruling

AG Bell has been a long-time advocate for greater captioning access in movie theaters. Recently, there have been two major court rulings in movie captioning access. 

On April 30, 2010, a unanimous, three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires closed-captioning access in movie theaters. This is the second time a federal court has ruled that the ADA requires some captioning access (a federal court in Washington, D.C., ruled this way in 2004), and the first time that a federal court of appeals has ruled this way, overturning a lower court decision. AG Bell filed an amicus brief in support of the appeal in late 2008. 

While the Ninth Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs that ADA mandates closed captioning services (i.e., captions that can only be seen by the patron) in theaters, it did agree with the defendants that the current language of ADA does not require open captioning services (i.e., captions that can be seen by the entire audience). Because both the ADA’s legislative history and the U.S. Department of Justice ADA interpretive regulations state that open captioning is exempt from ADA’s reasonable accommodation requirements, the Ninth Circuit had no basis to order theaters to install open captioning devices. Many theaters across the country already offer closed-captioning systems, such as Rear-Window captioning.

The decision is binding in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington State. As a result of this ruling, additional lawsuits in other states may soon follow and the U.S. Department of Justice may revisit its interpretive regulations regarding captioning. 

In addition, on May 4, 2010, a state judge in Washington ruled that Washington State Disability Access law requires theaters to provide accommodations for patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing. Because the Washington State Disability Access Law is broader than ADA, it is possible that Washington state law will require open captioning as an accommodation. However, at a minimum the theaters will almost certainly have to provide closed captioning for patrons in Washington state who request it. A trial has been scheduled for mid-May to determine what precise form of captioning will be required.

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