Legal Requirements for Stadium Captioning

April 19, 2023 BY ABBY ALEPA

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Whether it’s a concert, sporting event, or theatrical performance, attending live events is a source of joy and excitement for many people. The energy of the crowd, the spectacle of the performance or game, and the sense of being part of something special all contribute to the magic of live entertainment.

However, for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, this experience is incomplete without access to live captions. In-stadium captioning ensures that everyone has the opportunity to fully experience the event. This blog will cover legal requirements for accessible in-stadium viewing.

The Americans with Disabilities Act

Signed in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the most far-reaching piece of accessibility legislation in the U.S.

The act and its amendments guarantee equal opportunity for disabled people in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation. The ADA affects both public and private entities.

The ADA mandates that it’s the responsibility of public and private organizations to provide equal access through appropriate accommodations. The act includes 5 sections or “Titles;” Titles II and III impact web accessibility and closed captioning.

Stadium Captioning Accessibility Laws Under the ADA

Under Title III of the ADA, stadiums and arenas must provide auxiliary aids and services, including captioning, to ensure effective communication for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. Specifically, the ADA’s regulations on “Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Public Accommodations and Commercial Facilities” (28 CFR Part 36) provide guidance on the requirements for effective communication for D/deaf and hard of hearing individuals. This requirement applies to both new and existing facilities.

The specific requirements for in-stadium captioning under the ADA include the following:

  • Captioning for public address announcements: Stadiums must provide captioning for all public address announcements made during events, such as game scores, player names, and other important information.
  • Captioning for videos: If stadiums display videos on scoreboards or other screens, they must provide closed captioning for those videos.
  • Captioning for emergency announcements: In the event of an emergency, stadiums must provide captioning for any announcements made over the public address system.
  • Captioning for other communications: Stadiums must also provide captioning for any other communications that are necessary to ensure effective communication for individuals who are D/deaf or hard of hearing.

There is no minimum seating capacity under the ADA that would exempt a stadium or arena from providing accessibility for disabled individuals. The ADA applies to all public accommodations, regardless of their size or capacity.

While captions are legally required for any type of event, specifications may vary based on factors like venue size or the type of event. For example, a sports event may require captioning that can keep up with fast-paced commentary, whereas a concert may require captioning that can be synced to the music.

It’s also important to consider that live captions are not enough to be fully accessible. American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters should be considered for in-stadium events in addition to live captioning. As professional sports sign language interpreter Brice Christianson explained in an episode of 3Play Media’s Allied podcast, English is a second language for many in the Deaf community:

There are two million [people] that use American Sign Language. And so when you look at that, that means that English is their second language. So typically they’re not as proficient in English. So when you’re providing captions and saying, hey, we’re accommodating you, what you’re telling someone is that you better be proficient in English. And you better understand what all these words mean.Brice Christianson

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Past Legal Settlements for Stadium Accessibility

Let’s review some settlements between the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and various universities and venues.

Ohio State University
In 2009, a group of deaf students at Ohio State University filed a complaint alleging that Ohio State’s athletic department discriminated against D/deaf and hard of hearing individuals by failing to provide auxiliary aids and services at Ohio Stadium and Value City Arena at the Jerome Schottenstein Center.

An agreement was reached between Ohio State University and the DOJ that requires the university to provide open captioning on the scoreboard and closed captioning through individual devices at all home games.

The settlement also requires the university to provide open captioning for all public announcements and emergency alerts made through its public address system. Captions must be visible from all areas of the stadium and remain on the scoreboard until the corresponding announcement is complete.

Under the agreement, Ohio State University must also provide training to its staff about how to ensure that the captioning is functioning properly and provide assistive listening devices to D/deaf and hard of hearing attendees.

Ohio State is part of the Big Ten Conference of universities, the oldest Division 1 collegiate athletic conference in the United States. The NAD used the Ohio State settlement as a model to other Big Ten universities, sending them a letter outlining the settlement agreement with Ohio State and requesting that these universities adopt similar policies and practices to ensure their stadiums provide equal access to deaf and hard of hearing fans.

The Denver Pepsi Center

In 2018, a deaf individual filed a complaint against the Denver Pepsi Center, alleging that the arena violated the ADA by failing to provide captioning during games.

The owner of the Denver Pepsi Center settled the lawsuit with a consent decree that requires open captions on ribbon boards that can be seen from every seat in the stadium.

The captions cover all public announcements, and an independent monitor was appointed to check the accuracy of the captions.

The University of Maryland

In 2013, the NAD filed a lawsuit against the University of Maryland on behalf of two deaf individuals who regularly attended athletic events at the university. The events were not captioned and violated the ADA.

The agreement between the University of Maryland and the DOJ requires the university to provide accessible captioning services, including closed captioning on screens and assistive listening devices, for all home football and basketball games.

The University of Maryland must provide captions that are “accurate, complete, and synchronized with the spoken words,” and provide training to staff on the use of captioning equipment and services.

In-Stadium Captioning: A Necessity for Accessibility and Legal Compliance

In-stadium captioning is a legal requirement that must be fulfilled by stadiums and event organizers. Failure to comply with in-stadium accessibility requirements can result in legal action and penalties. Therefore, it is essential for stadiums to prioritize fulfilling these legal requirements to avoid legal consequences and to promote equal access for all fans.

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