Bills would make movies and in-flight entertainment accessible
Senator Tom Harkin has introduced legislation to require captioning and video descriptions at movie theaters and during in-flight entertainment
Technologies like smartphone and tablets, and services like Netflix streaming and Amazon Prime, have exponentially increased the volume of entertainment available to many of us over the last few years. But, as I’ve written about before, many people with disabilities have been unable to access all of the TV shows, movies, online videos, etc. that are now available to many of us. New technologies have not only opened the floodgates of entertainment, but have also often excluded the hard of hearing, visually impaired or otherwise disabled consumers.
Image credit: flickr/zieak
Progress is slowly being made in some areas, thanks to legislation like the the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), which aims to make online video accessible via captioning. However, there are still other venues for entertainment where the decision to make content accessible has been left up to the service provider, with predictably poor results. Potentially good news came last week, though, in the form of two new pieces of legislation introduced by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, that would require movie theaters and airlines’ in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems to provide captions and descriptions.
The first, the Captioning and Image Narration to Enhance Movie Accessibility (CINEMA) Act (Senate bill S.555), would require any theater with 2 or more screens to provide captioning (open or closed) and video descriptions for all movies. This would be an amendment to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which already requires that any place of public accommodation (such as a movie theater) be physically accessible. Theater operators would have one year after enactment to implement these requirements.
Currently, hundreds of theaters across the country offer closed captioning and video descriptions, using technologies like Rear Window Captioning and DVS Theatrical, both of which were developed by the National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM). However, not every movie in these theaters offers captions or descriptions and many theaters do not offer these services at all. The CINEMA Act would require them at all showings at all theaters, other than single screen venues. The bill does not specify which particular captioning or description technology be implemented.
The second bill introduced by Sen. Harkin, the Air Carrier Access Amendment Act (Senate bill S.556), would amend the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) to require that U.S. air carriers offer captions and video descriptions for all visually displayed in-flight entertainment, and to provide alternatives to touch screen controls. Airlines would have 180 days after enactment to implement captioning and descriptions. The government would have 18 months after enactment to come up with standards for alternative touch screen controls; once those are published, the airlines would then 180 days to implement such controls.
The current state of accessibility of visual content on airplanes is spotty at best. The ACAA requires that in-flight safety messages be captioned. A small number of airlines, such as Continental, Qantas and Emirates, offer captioning voluntarily. DirecTV offers captions on their programming that’s available on airlines such as Delta and JetBlue, but movies offered by those airlines aren’t captioned. No airlines are currently offering video descriptions or alternatives to touch screen controls. Again, the bill would not require the implementation of specific captioning or description technologies.
NCAM, in addition to having developed technologies for providing captions and descriptions in theaters, has done research into making IFE systems accessible, so I asked their director, Larry Goldberg, about the likelihood of passage for these bills. Goldberg says that, while he has no special insight into whether the bills will pass, “in the past, legislation which supports the interests and needs of children and adults with disabilities often has bi–partisan support.” So, while it seems likely that these bills will get strong Congressional support, it remains to be seen how the theaters and airlines will react.
In any case, it’s a promising development, which I’ll be keeping an eye on.
Are you disabled? Have you had good or bad experiences trying to watch a movie in a theater or entertainment on a plane? Please share your experiences in the comments.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post described the CVAA as requiring descriptions for online videos; while the CVAA added a requirement for more video description on TV, it imposes no requirements for descriptions on online videos.
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