New rules would require closed captioning in movie theaters

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COLUMBIA - In late November a handful of organizations agreed on a list of joint recommendations to recently proposed movie theater captioning changes. Some members of the deaf community said the proposal includes what should have been obvious changes, but it's not always easy for the deaf and hard of hearing to fight for their rights.    

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was implemented to ensure people with disabilities receive public accommodations.

This act brought attention to things such as wheelchair ramps and available braille plates, but what about a disability that doesn't need quite as many accommodations?   

In the state of Missouri there are approximately 90,000 people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Now they are ready to find a way for their needs to be taken seriously. 

"When people think of accessibility and accommodations, they tend to think of wheelchair ramps and that's it," MU Junior Hayden Kristal, who is deaf, said. "It's a lot more than that. I think that now we are starting to expand as a society our definition of accessibility and accommodations. That's really awesome because it means more people will be able to get involved, and stay active, and to have access to things in life that a lot of people take for granted." 

"I am aware that there is a need in the community," Executive Director of Missouri Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Opeoluwa Sotonwa said through an interpreter. "With the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community in Missouri there is a need. With their families, they want to go see a movie, but they don't have access to it so there is a disconnect. Family events provide connection and when we don't have those closed captions it's hard so a lot of deaf and hard of hearing people do have that disconnect so that's something that we want to change and that is unacceptable."

In July, Attorney General Eric Holder signed a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to amend the Title III regulation and add a requirement for movie theaters to provide closed captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing. 

After publication of the NPRM, representatives from the Alexander Graham Bell Association (AG Bell), the Association of Late Deafened Adults (ALDA), the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), and the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) held various meetings and eventually reached an agreement on establishing a joint recommendation to the Department of Justice.

Here are the recommendations they decided on:

In the NPRM, the Department of Justice recommended all digital screens be equipped with closed captioning systems, and the collaborative groups agreed. 

The Department of Justice also proposed a formula to determine the number of closed captioning devices each theater should provide based on the number of seats in the complex. The groups decided that this formula treats all theaters equally and instead should consider the number of people who are deaf and hard of hearing in the geographic area in which the theater is located.

For example, Regal Columbia Stadium 14 & RPX Movie Theater said it uses the devices almost every day and currently has 12 total. General Manager Marcus South said there has never been a request for more than about six at a time. A movie theater located in a place with a larger Deaf community, however, might have a need for more.  

More of the recommendations included monitoring consumer demand and adjusting the number of captioning devises based on the numbers. The Joint Recommendations document stated "Requiring a fixed number of devices for all theatres on a mechanical, non-adjustable formula as proposed by the NPRM will result in some theatres having too many devices and some theatres having an insufficient number of devices. This will not benefit consumers or motion picture theatre."

Kristal said more devices would mean more revenue.

"Obviously, if only one theater in the area has [the devices] they get 100 percent of the deaf communities business," Kristal said. "So if you don't have them available you are not taking advantage of a market that you could be. You could be getting that money."

South said as far as he knows the devices do come with a cost.

"They're out of our pocket. When we hand these devices to customers it's just a verbal agreement that 'I'm gonna hand you a piece of equipment that is thousands of dollars, and you're gonna use it, and then you're gonna give it back, we won't charge you and there are no fees'," South said. "Several items have been broken, and we ship them off and get them repaired and sent back for about a thousand bucks."

More details on the Joint Recommendations can be found in the official document

Even if the recommendations are accepted, Sotonwa said it would likely take months for changes to be made in movie theaters.