Final Rule in ADA Title III Requires Movie Theaters to Provide Closed Captioning

November 22, 2016 BY EMILY GRIFFIN
Updated: January 4, 2018


Following a string of discrimination lawsuits against cinemas, the Department of Justice has published a Final Rule on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as it applies to accommodating disabled patrons in movie theaters.

Movie theaters have become the target of lawsuits in Michigan and Pennsylvania, where the plaintiffs cited the lack of closed captioning offered to patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing.

These lawsuits reference Title III of the ADA, which requires places of public accommodation, such as movie theaters, to provide reasonable accommodations and equal access to people with disabilities. Lack of closed captions for deaf patrons — or audio description for blind patrons — would violate the ADA.

Since Attorney General Loretta Lynch signed the Final Rule on November 21, 2016, the ADA offers clear parameters for cinemas to accommodate patrons with disabilities.

What’s the Final Rule?

The Final Rule dictates three main requirements for American movie theaters. They must:

  1. have and maintain the equipment necessary to provide closed captioning and audio description at a movie patron’s seat whenever showing a digital movie produced, distributed, or otherwise made available with these features;
  2. provide notice to the public about the availability of these features; and
  3. ensure that theater staff is available to assist patrons with the equipment before, during, and after the showing of a movie with these features.

With these requirements clearly and explicitly spelled out in the rule, cinemas across the country should take steps to ensure they are in compliance with the ADA, or else risk a strong case for an accessibility lawsuit.


The rule applies to all American movie theaters, defined as “a facility, other than a drive-in theater, that is owned, leased by, leased to, or operated by a public accommodation and that contains one or more auditoriums that are used primarily for the purpose of showing movies to the public for a fee.”

Exclusions include:

  • Drive-in movie theaters
  • Theaters that show only analog movies

And as always with ADA regulations, companies must comply “unless compliance results in an undue burden or a fundamental alteration.”

What Accommodations Are Required?

Movie theaters must provide closed captioning display devices to patron who are deaf or hard of hearing. These devices may be hand-held or clip onto seat-backs so that the closed captions are visible only to the patron in need.

For blind patrons, theaters must provide an audio description track. Audio description narrates the visual content of a movie where there are no corresponding audio elements. It involves a separate script that is recorded and synchronized with the movie as it is projected. The oral delivery of the script is transmitted to the user through infra-red or FM transmission to wireless headsets.

Cinemas are required to possess a certain number of assistive technology devices based on the number of auditoriums showing digital movies. The table below outlines these requirements.

Assistive Technology Device Requirements for Movie Theaters
# of AuditoriumsMinimum # of Captioning DevicesMinimum # of Audio Description Devices

Note that the rule does not require movie theaters to offer open captioned screenings (where the captions are projected on the big screen for all to see).

However, Hawaii passed a state law that requires at least some movie screenings to display open captions, making them accessible to deaf and hard of hearing patrons without assistive technology.

Timeline for Compliance

Movie theaters must comply with parts 2 and 3 of the rule (regarding communication with the public and training of staff) within 45 days of the rule’s publication. They have up to 2 years to acquire all the necessary equipment to provide the requisite assistance. Eighteen months from now, companies will have only 6 months to comply.

Download the brief: How the ADA Impacts Video Accessibility

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