Pawtucket, RI Mandates Closed Captioning Stays on in Public Places

June 16, 2017 BY ELISA LEWIS
Updated: February 10, 2021

When you enter a public establishment such as a restaurant, you fully expect that they’ll provide the appropriate necessities – plates, food, silverware, napkins, etc. But if you’re Deaf or hard of hearing, closed captions on TVs are a necessity too. So why is it that providing closed captioning on TVs in public places isn’t just a given?

A Step in the Right Direction

Our neighbors in Pawtucket, Rhode Island are changing this. Last week Pawtucket became the first community in Rhode Island to require that closed captioning be turned on at all times on TVs in businesses that serve the public.

Although it’s been met with some controversy, this is a big step in the right direction for accessibility advocates and for individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing. But, it wasn’t so easy. Only five of the nine council members voted in favor of this new law, which will be implemented in September, and many still disagree with this new regulation. They argue that this type of ruling should be made at the state or federal level, rather than the local level. Councilor Terry Mercer responded to this by saying that he would have been happy to go to the General Assembly to testify for a new statewide rule. He concluded, “I don’t think this is a Pawtucket-specific problem.”

Pawtucket resident Tim Riker, along with others, testified that a requirement for closed captioning in public facilities is “easy to follow” for businesses, with just a push of a button. They also expressed the importance of an “equal experience” to others rather than individuals having to request that captions be turned on.

Intent and Purpose

The purpose of this law is to educate, as well as to promote equality and inclusion. City Council has determined that hearing loss is a significant problem affecting many residents and visitors in the City of Pawtucket. Therefore, requiring activation of Closed Captioning on compatible television receivers while in use in places of public accommodation improves the health, safety, and welfare of the City by increasing available channels of communication to persons with hearing loss.

Kallman, a member of the committee pushed the ordinance as a way to bring greater equity for the estimated 8,000 people in Pawtucket who are Deaf or hard of hearing. She said that the law “affirms all citizens” and is “setting a norm” of inclusion.

The More the Merrier

Pawtucket isn’t alone in trying to change the status quo with this type of law. In 2015, Portland became the first city to implement this type of law, and they did so unanimously. David Viers, a longtime advocate for the Deaf and hard of hearing explained, “The change may seem inconsequential to some, but captions can help keep deaf people safe in emergencies. They might have helped this fall as heavy rains caused some streets to flood. Captions could tell a Deaf or hard-of-hearing person which neighborhoods to avoid.” A similar law also passed unanimously in Ann Arbor, Michigan and will take effect starting July 1, 2017.

Although police officers and code enforcement officials are authorized to issue citations for violations of this chapter, those behind the law said they’re not looking to punish businesses with fees but rather they simply want to educate the people.


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