Closed captions are sometimes the only means through which individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can fully access, enjoy and experience entertainment events or broadcasts that the rest of the world may take for granted.
Unfortunately, in many cases, these means are denied them.
Sports games are just one type of event at which deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals are too often neglected and excluded. With all of the commentary, announcements and music projected over loudspeakers for aural consumption, these individuals cannot adequately enjoy the experience of a game without captioned accounts of what others can hear.
The issue of making sporting events more accessible to fans who are deaf or hard-of-hearing has received increased attention over the past few years.
With lawsuits being filed against numerous teams (both collegiate and professional), those in charge of sports teams and the stadiums/arenas at which they play have been forced to make accommodations to ensure equal access for patrons who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.
In view of the plaintiffs’ success in these cases, with judges ruling it unlawful for teams not to provide captioning for hearing-impaired fans, it is highly advisable that schools and other sports organizations enlist the help of professional captioning or subtitling services in order to accommodate the needs of all fans and avoid unnecessary legal bouts.
Washington Redskins: Precedent Set in the Nation’s Capital
The first notable instance in recent memory, in which deaf fans filed suit against a professional football team for its refusal to provide captions at home games, was in a 2006 lawsuit against the Washington Redskins.
The court found the Redskins guilty under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was enacted in 1990 and forbids discrimination against individuals with disabilities (which includes individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing among those protected).
The ruling was appealed, and despite the team’s agreement to provide closed-captioning on the scoreboard at Fed-Ex Field, the original verdict was upheld, finding the Redskins guilty for having refused the deaf fans’ initial requests.
Thus, the court of appeals set an important precedent and made it known that it is unlawful not to provide the deaf and hard-of-hearing with equal access to all game-related information.
Had the Redskins provided subtitles or captions in the stadium proper (i.e. on the scoreboard or jumbotron) and concourse areas in the first place, this costly legal battle might have been avoided.
Ohio State University: Failure to Learn from Precedent
Another case in which a hearing-impaired fan successfully filed suit against his local team for failing to provide captions at home games was that of Vincent Sabino against Ohio State University in 2009.
In his claim, Sabino also cited the ADA (Title II), as well as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which states that no individual may “be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance” on the sole basis of his/her disability.
Claiming that the lack of captioning in any of the sports facilities at Ohio State (a public university receiving federal assistance) prevented him from being able to follow the game, especially when in the concourse areas (to purchase concessions or use the restroom), Sabino won his case against the university in 2010.
The school now provides captions for all public announcements and play-by-play commentary on the bottom of the jumbotron/scoreboard and on televisions in the concourse areas.
University of Kentucky: Further Calls for Captions
A more recent case occurred in early May 2011, when a deaf fan of the University of Kentucky’s football team filed suit in order to compel the university to provide closed-captioning in its stadium.
The fan, Charles Mitchell, like his predecessors, cited the ADA as the legal basis for his claim and demands included that the university provide captions for all public announcements, as well as all plays, penalties, lyrics to music played and safety/emergency information.
In 2012 Mitchell and the university reached a settlement agreement wherein the university would provide captions for both announcements and the words to “My Old Kentucky Home,” as well as other songs played.
University of Maryland: When Will They Learn?
The most recent case was brought forward in September 2013 when the National Association of the Deaf filed a lawsuit on behalf of Sean Markel and Joseph Innes against the University of Maryland.
Markel and Innes, both deaf individuals who regularly attend football and basketball games at the university, sought captioning on both scoreboards and video screens for announcements, commentary, entertainment and song lyrics, emergency information and any other aural information broadcasted.
If these repeated lawsuits make one thing clear its that regardless of whether or not a team has already been approached by deaf and/or hearing-impaired fans, future conflicts can be avoided by sports teams implementing the necessary measures to provide captioning during games.