The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law July 26, 1990. Here we are, twenty-eight years later, and some outfits are still acting like this law doesn’t apply to them.
Suppose a deaf or blind person wants to go see a movie at a theater. How does a deaf person know what’s being said on screen? How does a blind person catch the strictly visual elements of the story, such as costumes, sight gags, or the noble protagonist running to escape a rampaging ball of fire?
There are devices that solve this problem. They provide captions, like subtitles, that only the person in the audience using the device can see. They also provide audio description, where a recorded narrator describes the visual elements of the story to a blind person via headphones.
An increasing number of digital movies are compatible with these devices. But so many theaters were not providing the devices to moviegoers who need them that the Obama Justice Department issued ADA rules in 2016 seeking to remedy this problem.
Sometimes it takes lawsuits and federal intervention to make it possible for some people to do do a simple, routine thing, like go see a damn movie.
The new rules went into effect June 2. They require theaters showing digital movies compatible with captioning and description equipment to have enough of the devices on hand to meet the potential demand of moviegoers who might request them during peak hours. The theaters must also advertise the availability of the equipment and have staff present who know how to use it.
When the rules were originally published in the Federal Register in 2016, the Justice Department cited a movie-industry statistic claiming that 70 percent of theaters stocked these devices in 2015.
“Some movie industry commenters asserted that because many movie theater companies already provide captioning and audio description, the department should refrain from regulating in this area and continue to rely on ‘voluntary compliance’ by the movie theaters,” the agency wrote. “However, individuals with hearing and vision disabilities and other commenters noted that despite the fact that captioning and audio description have been available for more than a decade and those features are widely available to movie theaters at no additional charge, many movie theaters still only show movies with captioning and audio description at intermittent times, and some movie theaters do not offer these services at all.”
So a lot of deaf or blind folks, if they could go to the movies at all, could only go at the times designated by the management of their local theaters. No doubt that was often 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. Having the devices on hand makes every showtime accessible.
Obama’s Justice Department noted that much of the accessibility that exists for deaf and blind moviegoers is the result of lawsuits brought by individuals and state attorneys general. The theater chain AMC agreed in 2012 to provide captioning and description equipment at all of its theaters in order to settle a lawsuit by the Illinois attorney general .
In the rule, the department opined that “access to movie theaters for persons who are deaf or hard of hearing, or blind or have low vision, should not depend upon where they live.”
I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of the lawsuits. But today, we can say hooray for the ADA. Here’s an example of it at work. Sometimes it takes lawsuits and federal intervention to make it possible for some people to do do a simple, routine thing, like go see a damn movie.