DOJ pushes rules for movie theaters on serving blind and deaf

The Justice Department moved Friday to open up the nation’s cinemas to the visually and hearing impaired with a slate of draft regulations requiring movie theaters to offer closed captioning and audio description technology.

"This proposed rule will allow all Americans, including those with disabilities, to fully participate in the moviegoing experience,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in unveiling the plan.

The DOJ’s bid to amend the Americans with Disabilities Act comes four years after the agency signaled plans to move forward with new regulations, drawing more than 1,000 public comments.

The agency is seeking to require all theaters with digital screens to comply with the new regulations six months after the rule is finalized. The proposal asks for comment on whether a four year compliance date is appropriate for theaters with analog screens, or whether regulations for those movie houses should be shelved until a later date.

Estimates of the costs of the rule fall somewhere between $177.8 million and $225.9 million over 15 years, the agency said.

Under the rules, captions would be delivered directly to the seat in a manner only visible to only a requesting patron. Audio description, transmitted via a wireless headset, allows individuals who are blind or have low vision “a spoken narration of important visual elements of a movie, such as actions, settings, facial expressions, costumes and scene changes.”

The Justice Department stressed that the regulations would not require theaters to add captioning or audio description to movies that come without those features and exempts theaters that “would cause an undue burden or fundamental alteration” to comply.

The proposal will be published in the Federal Register in the coming days, beginning a 60-day comment period.

Justice Department officials said the landmark 1990 statute provides the agency authority to ensure those with visual and hearing disabilities access to an important aspect of the nation’s culture.

"Twenty-four years after its passage, the Americans with Disabilities Act remains a critical tool for extending the promise of opportunity and inclusion for everyone in this country,” Holder said.