Captioning & ADA:
Facts and Fiction
by Steven John Fellman
NATO Washington Counsel
During the past year, much has been
written with regard to whether motion picture theatres
are required to show
captioned films for the benefit of deaf patrons. A settlement
was reached in a class-action case brought in the District
of Columbia and settlements were reached in several cases
brought by New Jersey’s attorney general. Additional
investigations by state agencies are in progress. This
seems to be a good time to set the record straight.
Fiction 1: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards
require motion picture theatres to show open- or closed-captioned
Fact: In July the Architectural and Transportation Barriers
Compliance Board (the Access Board) published a revised
Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines
(ADAAG). In the preamble to that ADAAG, 69 Fed. Reg. 44138,
the Access Board stated: “ADAAG and the Department
of Justice’s ADA regulations do not require captioning
of movies for persons who are deaf.”
Fiction 2: A district court in the District of Columbia
ruled that closed captioning is required in motion picture
theatres under the ADA.
Fact: In a ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a district
court judge in the District of Columbia ruled that she
would take evidence on whether the ADA required motion
picture theatres to adopt new technology such as closed
captioning. After this ruling, the case was settled. There
was no final ruling as to whether or not the ADA requires
closed captioning for motion picture theatres.
Fiction 3: Over 20 million deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons
will benefit from captioning in motion picture theatres.
Fact: This number is put out by groups representing the
hearing-impaired community. In fact, the 20-million-plus
number includes all persons who are hearing-impaired. The
great majority of such persons benefit from assistive listening
systems that are now available in all theatres. Some portion
of this universe includes people who have hearing impairments
such as tinnitus who will not be helped by either assistive
listening systems or captioning. Only a small fraction
of the 20-million-plus hearing-impaired persons are actually
Fiction 4: Rear-window closed captioning is the only form
of captioning currently available on the market.
Fact: Rear-window closed captioning is certainly available
on the market. Also available is a DTS system that shows
open captioning either at the bottom of the screen or on
a separate viewer box in the front of the auditorium. Cinema
operators are investigating other systems, including a
new technology which may enable theatres to create open
captioning with pre-show advertising projectors. The studios
are making more films available with discs that can be
used for either rear-window or DTS open captioning. Some
studios are still making open-captioned prints but distributors
seem generally to be making fewer of these available.
Fiction 5: The New Jersey attorney general investigated
theatre chains to determine if they were violating the
federal ADA with regard to captioning.
Fact: The attorney general of New Jersey investigated theatre
chains in connection with a state regulation regarding
captioning, not the federal ADA.
Fiction 6: The deaf community prefers rear-window closed
captioning over open captioning.
Fact: In testimony at the fairness hearing in the D.C.
class-action case and in a brief filed in a New Jersey
state court action, the Coalition for Movie Captioning
(CMC) stated that the deaf community would prefer open
captioning over closed captioning. The CMC is an advocacy
group whose members include some of the largest groups
representing deaf Americans, including the Coalition for
Movie Captioning and the National Association of the Deaf.
In published positions, these groups have stated that rear
window closed captioning is better than nothing but expressed
a preference for open captioning.
Fiction 7: Assistive-listening headsets and rear-window
captioning units will be widely used by deaf patrons.
Fact: The industry experience with assistive listening
devices and with rear window closed captioning units is
that this equipment is rarely used. In theatres all across
America, the reports are uniform that most assistive listening
devices sit in drawers and are rarely if ever used. In
theatres that have installed rear window systems, even
where such installations have been covered widely in the
press, usage is minimal.
Fiction 8: More hearing-impaired persons and deaf persons
would attend movies if accessible equipment were available
for major blockbusters when the movies first open.
Fact: Assistive listening headsets have been available
for all movies for well over 10 years. These headsets are
available for all first-run movies on opening day. The
headsets are rarely used. Many major films are now being
distributed with rear-window discs. These films are available
for deaf patrons on opening day. The rear-window equipment
is rarely used.
Conclusion. Including equipment and
installation, the cost of a rear-window or DTS system
will probably end up
costing in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $15,000 per auditorium.
However, as we learned at ShoWest in March, there is increased
pressure to move to digital transmission of movies. Once
theatres begin receiving digital transmissions of movies,
it is expected that provision will be made for special
captioning in some discreet format. When this is done,
the current rear-window or DTS system will probably become