Closed captioning bill moves out of committee

This morning, a bill requiring places of public accommodation to turn on closed captions on all televisions in public areas was passed out of committee and is now headed for final approval by the full Council next Monday.

The bill, sponsored by Council member Herbold, originated with the city’s Commission for People with disAbilities and is modeled after similar ones in Portland OR, Pawtucket MA, and Ann Arbor MI. It requires, with few exceptions, all TV screens in the public areas of places of public accommodation (such as bars and restaurants) to display closed captions during regular hours. For almost two decades, all televisions sold in the United States have contained the necessary technology to display closed captions, and today most broadcast programming includes captions.┬áThe ordinance’s requirement to have captions turned on also extends to stores where TVs are sold.

Last month, when explaining to the Council the rationale behind the ordinance, Commission co-chair Eric Scheir noted that despite the ADA’s requirement that accommodations be provided for people with disabilities, in places of public accommodation it can be difficult for people to request that closed captions be turned on, and frequently the staff don’t know how to do it when requested. He also pointed out that closed captions help many people beyond those with documented disabilities, especially in noisy environments such as bars.

The ordinance tasks the Office of Civil Rights with enforcement. It imposes a $125 fine for the first violation, and up to $300 for subsequent violations. Enforcement would not begin until 180 days after the bill takes effect, in order to allow for businesses to find out about the rule and come into compliance.

A few relatively minor amendments were made to the ordinance before it was passed out of committee this morning. For TV stores, an exception was made such that if there are more than one of the same model and size of TV on display, captions must only be turned on for one of them. Another amendment clarifies that the ordinance does not apply when the programming being displayed does not include captioning data.

The bill will be on the full Council agenda next Monday afternoon for final adoption.