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

February 8, 2019 BY SOFIA ENAMORADO
Updated: December 5, 2019

 

In 2016, following a string of discrimination lawsuits against cinemas, the Department of Justice published a Final Rule on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as it applies to accommodating disabled patrons in movie theaters.

Past lawsuits filed against movie theaters 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.

Exclusions

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
141
2-761-4
8-1564-8
16+128+

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.

Open Captioning Accommodations

Open captions display spoken text and sound effects at the bottom of the movie screen, which eliminates the need for an assistive technology tool. Open captioning provides a superior user experience for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers, as well as ESL-speakers, people with autism, people with attention deficit disorders, or people with auditory neuropathy.

The Final Rule does not require movie theaters to offer open captioned screenings.

Michigan Movie Theater Lawsuit

On August 15, Celebration! Cinemas of Grand Rapids, Michigan was sued for failing to provide closed captioning for the movies it shows at its Benton Habor location.

The plaintiff, Graham Forsey, 23, is deaf and has made multiple requests for closed captions at the Benton Harbor movie theater only to be refused by the management.

Forsey filed the lawsuit alongside the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), which represents about 137,000 Michiganders who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Loeks Theaters, Inc. (or, Celebration! Cinemas) of Grand Rapids, agreed to add personal closed captioning devices to all of their locations currently lacking them, including the Benton Harbor location.

Pittsburg Movie Theater Lawsuit

In 2016, Kenneth DeHaan, who is deaf, requested access to captions multiple times at the South Side Works Cinema in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. According to the lawsuit against Cleveland Cinemas, the larger parent company which owns the theater, South Side Works Cinema refused to provide him captions despite the fact that they do so at other locations owned by the company.

In a statement released the day of the lawsuit, the NAD’s legal council explained how the ADA applies to this particular case:

“The Americans with Disabilities Act requires movie theaters to ensure full and equal access for individuals, including individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing,” said Michael Steven Stein, an attorney with Stein & Vargas, LLP, one of the firms representing the plaintiffs.

“Going to the movies is an important part of American culture and one that should be accessible to deaf individuals.”

Open Captioning Accommodations

Open captions display spoken text and sound effects at the bottom of the movie screen, which eliminates the need for an assistive technology tool. Open captioning provides a superior user experience for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers, as well as ESL-speakers, people with autism, people with attention deficit disorders, or people with auditory neuropathy.

However, cinemas are not required to provide open captions, and most don’t. Instead, they provide closed captioning devices which can sometimes be faulty, disruptive, and inaccessible.

In a survey by Audi Accessibility, they uncovered that 75.1% of respondents – both with hearing and without hearing loss – say the would prefer open captions. Additionally, 91.5% said that open captions do not bother them.

Captions benefit all individuals, not just deaf and hard of hearing people. In fact, many Gen Z individuals are opting to watch television with the captions on because it helps them focus and understand the content better.


Learn more about the ADA impacts online video accessibility!

This blog post is written for educational and general information purposes only and does not constitute specific legal advice. This blog should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.

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