Open Captioning Requirement for NYC Movie Theaters

A bill proposed by the New York City Chapter of HLAA to require the city’s movie theaters — to offer weekly open-captioned screenings for every film — was overwhelmingly passed by the New York City Council on December 15. The groundbreaking bill culminates years of efforts by the deaf and hard of hearing communities to address problematic access to movies via the use of closed-caption devices as required under the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Special thanks to outgoing Council member Helen Rosenthal, who sponsored the bill after meeting with three of her Upper West Side district’s constituents—HLAA-NYC Chapter members Katherine Bouton, Ruth Bernstein, and Jerry Bergman. The successful effort in support of the bill’s passage was led by Bergman and John Waldo, a disability rights attorney with profound hearing loss and a veteran advocate for cinema accessibility. 

The bill is expected to be signed into law soon by Mayor Bill de Blasio or Mayor-elect Eric Adams and will take effect 120 days later. 

Bergman and Waldo met several times with representatives of the movie exhibitors to explore a voluntary agreement for open-captioned movie showings on a fair and equitable basis. According to Waldo, “We’ll continue to work with the theaters to clarify some of the bill’s language and develop meaningful metrics to assess the impact of the ordinance on overall movie attendance.” 

The exhibitors, experiencing lower movie attendance than prior to the pandemic, fear further revenue losses due to open-captioned showings, although deaf and hard of hearing advocates believe that the return of significant numbers of people who were unhappy with the closed captioning will result in a net gain in movie attendance. “We believe that open captioning will benefit seniors with moderate age-related hearing loss, children learning to read, and immigrants for whom English is a second language,” Bergman said.

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