Portland becomes first city to require closed captions on all public TVs – OregonLive.com
Portland’s city commissioners unanimously agreed last month to require all public places with televisions to permanently turn on the closed captioning. Starting today, any public hospital, gym, restaurant or bar whose televisions don’t display subtitles risks a $500 fine. But the activists behind the new law say they don’t want to punish businesses with fees.
“We just want to educate people about this benefit,” said David Viers, a longtime advocate for the deaf and hard of hearing.
The change may seem inconsequential to some, Viers said, but captions can help keep deaf people safe in emergencies. They might have helped this fall as heavy rains caused some streets to flood. Captions could tell a deaf or hard-of-hearing person which neighborhoods to avoid.
Few other places have attempted such a widespread mandate. San Francisco passed a similar ordinance in 2008, and Maryland requires workers in public spaces to comply if a patron asks them to turn on captions.
“I have to find a waiter or bartender that knows how to work the TV system,” said deaf activist Jim House. “Sometimes I get lucky and get to play with their remote. But often I hear excuses that the remote is locked away in the manager’s office.”
Portland’s ordinance goes farther by requiring business owners to keep the captions on no matter who’s visiting. Deaf people don’t have to ask, and other customers can’t complain.
The activists behind “Turn the Captions On” say they know workers at every public place won’t have heard of the new regulations. Some might not yet know how to turn on the captions.
With an eye toward avoiding confrontations, the group is developing a sheet people can download to hand out. They suggest customers approach business owners with requests instead of demands, starting with asking business owners if they know about the new ordinance. If not, customers can offer to help figure out how to turn on captions in that establishment.
Advocates also created a website — captionsonnow.net — that explains how to turn captions on for four different providers. While watching DIRECTV, for instance, a viewer can press the yellow button on the remote. That brings up the “subtitling” option.
Their new website offers best practices, too: High contrast white or yellow is easier to read. CC2 is a better option, they say, if you’re expecting many Spanish-speaking customers. If the caption covers a box score or ticker at the bottom of the screen, they offer advice in complaining to the FCC, which regulates the placement of captions. Carol Studenmund, one of the activists who helped pass the new law, owns a national captioning service and says the federal agency has responded by moving captions sometimes in as quickly as a week.
Still, some say the ordinance overreaches
“I just don’t understand why you have to have the city council tell you what to do in your own place,” said Matthew Firosz, owner of NePo 42. “If somebody asks to have them on, we definitely would put it on. We have done that in the past.”
His Northeast Portland spot offers drink and food specials during Trailblazers games, which he screens on two televisions. Some customers have already complained since the bar turned on the captions last week.
“It does take away from the viewing experience in watching a game,” Firosz said.
Still, his beer pub can’t risk the fine, he said. Restaurant profit margins are thin, and he has to pay annual fees to licensing agents to play music in the bar.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz sponsored spent the summer talking with business owners. She knows they’re concerned about sports scores and news crawls.
But, she said, “the benefits to the people who need the captioning outweigh the impacts to those who don’t.”
As a “pretty rabid sports fan” herself, Fritz said she believed the captions wouldn’t hinder others fans’ game-watching. In October, the U.S. Department of Transportation began requiring airports to leave them on. Eventually, she believes all jurisdictions will require captions in public places.
“The more input I get the more convinced I am this is the right thing to do,” Fritz said. “I am not concerned that it’s going to impact business in Portland’s public places. I think it will rapidly become the standard for the nation.”
— Casey Parks