Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability by Public Accommodations-Movie Theaters; Movie Captioning and Audio Description

Focusing on outcomes, rather than outputs, would give theaters more freedom to adjust the amount of devices they need to purchase based on the number of disabled patrons they actually serve.

With this Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) the DOJ proposes amendments to Title III of the ADA concerning captioning and audio description services at movie theaters.1 Title III of the ADA applies to places of “public accommodation,” such as movie theaters, restaurants, schools, and doctors’ offices.2 These covered entities are prohibited from discriminating against any individual “on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.”3

In particular, Title III of the ADA prohibits public accommodations, such as movie theaters, from affording unequal or lesser service to individuals with disabilities.4 As a result, these entities must “ensure that no individual with a disability is excluded, denied services, segregated or otherwise treated differently . . . because of the absence of auxiliary aids and services.”5 In this context, “auxiliary aids and services” is defined to include:

[E]ffective methods of making aurally delivered materials available to individuals with hearing impairments . . . effective methods of making visually delivered materials available to individuals with visual impairments . . . acquisition or modification of equipment or devices, and other similar services and actions.6

As a result, the DOJ is proposing amendments that would require movie theaters to:

  1. exhibit movies with closed captioning and audio description at all times and for all showings whenever movies are produced, distributed, or otherwise made available with captioning and audio description, unless to do so would result in an undue burden or fundamental alteration;7 and 
  2. maintain a certain number of individual captioning and audio description devices.8

Consistent with the Title III, these requirements contain an exemption if compliance would cause an “undue burden”9 or “fundamental alteration.”10 However, covered entities would still be required to provide an alternative auxiliary aid or service, if available.11 

In addition, the DOJ seeks public comment regarding whether the proposed amendments should apply to analog screens in movie theaters.12 The DOJ provides two potential options. Under both, digital theaters would be required to provide captioning and audio description services. However, under option one, analog theaters would have four years to comply.13 Under option two, analog theaters would be exempted from this rule altogether, and the DOJ would revisit the possibility of analog regulation at a later date.14

Finally, the proposed amendments would require movie theaters to notify disabled patrons which movies have closed captioning and audio description services, perhaps through “signage, instruction guides, and exchange of written notes.”15

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