Captioning Goes to Court: An Interview with Attorney John Waldo

Lipreading Mom with the Sony Entertainment Captioning Glasses

Lipreading Mom with the Sony Entertainment Captioning Glasses

Lipreading Mom is a movie fan—when those movies are captioned.

This is the beginning of my ongoing series about movie accessibility via captioning. Join me in the coming weeks as I interview captioning advocates from around the world, including the founders of Collaboration for Communication Access via Captioning (CCAC),, and

Today’s interview is with Attorney John Waldo, Advocacy Director and Counsel for Washington State Communication Access Project (Wash-CAP), and Counsel for the Oregon Communication Access Project (OR-CAP).

Movie Captions: Past, Present, Future

Once upon a time, American theaters showed few captioned movies. There were two choices: open captions with words directly on the big screen, and rear window (closed) captioning with a reflective cup holder captioning device.

Then U.S. theaters acquired state-of-the-art digital projection, replacing the age-old reel-to-reel system. Movie companies and theaters now had the means to caption the digital films using various portable (closed captioning) devices. Open captioned showings became less and less as a result.

“Many of us in the ‘user’ community would prefer the convenience of open captions (OC),” says Waldo, who represented the Association of Late Deafened Adults (ALDA) in an accessibility lawsuit against the Cinemark theater chain a couple of years ago. “The theaters are absolutely convinced that hearing audiences shun OC presentations, and judging from the feedback I have received when our lawsuits have been publicized, many people in the hearing community are convinced that they would not like OC. Worse yet, that viewpoint has generally been adopted by both those courts that have ruled in our favor on captioning requests and by the federal Department of Justice (DOJ).”

Why the backlash against open captioning?

“While the courts and the DOJ have shied away from OC, they have embraced closed captioning,” Waldo says. “The latest court rulings have said that closed captioning is required to the extent that providing it does not constitute an ‘undue burden,’ basically meaning to the extent that the theaters can afford to provide it. Unfortunately, there is little or no guidance as to the point at which a financial obligation crosses the line from ‘due’ to ‘undue.’ However, all of the major theater chains, including the 10 largest circuits nationally, have decided not to further test that issue in court, and all have committed to providing closed-caption viewing devices in all of their auditoriums as they convert from traditional film projection to digital projection.”

A captioning sign at Cinemark

A captioning sign at Cinemark

The Onset of Portable Captioning Choices

Recently, Lipreading Mom saw as many captioned Oscar-nominated films as possible. Two captioning options were available, depending on the theater location: Doremi CaptiView and Sony Entertainment Access Glasses.

“CaptiView displays the captions on a solid viewing module roughly the size of a cell phone,” Waldo notes. “The viewing module is attached to a flexible gooseneck that fits into the cup holder, and the screen is shielded to prevent disruption to other patrons. The captions are transmitted wirelessly to the screen.”

Doremi CaptiView at AMC

Doremi CaptiView at AMC

More theaters are utilizing CaptiView technology than any other captioning sources. AMC and Cinemark are among the national chains who now embrace CaptiView.

The other type of device, Sony Entertainment Access Captioning Glasses, is eye ware that fits over regular glasses and displays the wirelessly transmitted captions onto the glass lens.

Waldo admits that neither device is perfect.

“Some viewers find CaptiView uncomfortable, especially over a long movie, because of the need to glance back and forth from the device to the screen. That problem seems particularly noticeable to patrons who are totally deaf, and must read every word, but is less of a concern to hard-of-hearing viewers that may be able to discern some of what is said, and glance only occasionally at the viewing device.

“The glasses,” Waldo adds, “address that back-and-forth problem, but some people find them physically uncomfortable—they are a little heavy on the nose, and annoyingly, they tend to knock off the magnetic contact device on CIs (cochlear implants).”

Before CaptiView and captioning glasses, rear window captioning (RWC) was the only portable accessibility option. But this product has become virtually obsolete in American cineplexes.

Waldo thinks this is unfortunate.

“That simple but ingenious method displays the captions in mirror image on the rear wall of the theater auditorium, and the captions are read on a translucent plexiglass screen about the depth and twice the width of an automobile rear-view mirror,” he says. “Many people in the user community have disfavored RWC. Part of that, I think, was because the flexible gooseneck that supported the reflector wasn’t sturdy enough, and tended to droop during the movie.”

What Happened to Open Captioning?

Some hearing loss community advocates have a strong dislike for portable captioning. They will only attend a movie if it is open captioned (OC).

“I also think part of the negative reaction to RWC came about because there was hope in some quarters that if closed captioning was taken off the table, the fallback position would be OC. That did not and will not happen,” Waldo says. “I think that rather than agitating for OC, we need to recognize reality, and look for the best closed-captioning solutions.”

Waldo weighs the pros and cons with each captioning option. He sees the one benefit of closed captioning as it being accessible for any showing of movies that come with captions. Films with OC, while viewable to the entire audience, were in the past only shown a few times a week “at less-than-desirable times.”

“I believe there may still be a limited role for OC,” he says. “Theaters with digital projectors do not need any additional equipment to show open captions—the operator simply selects that option from the digital menu, and the captions appear for specific showings.”

For theaters that “can demonstrate that closed captioning would impose an undue financial burden, then OC ought to be an alternative, rather than exempting the theater from all accommodation requirements. But even if that view is accepted, the OC showings would likely be extremely limited.”

Part Two of Waldo’s Interview

In the next post about captioning, Waldo will shed light on how American law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, has influenced cinema accessibility choices today.

Comment below with any questions or insight about the topic of captioning.


20 thoughts on “Captioning Goes to Court: An Interview with Attorney John Waldo

  1. Whilst we are lucky enough to have open captions cinema screenings in the UK, I know that trials are about to start for other options for which I hope to take part. I’m not sure how I feel about it yet, trying not to judge before I’ve tried the other options other than open captions.

    • @iheartsubtitles – Be sure to watch my blog in the next week or so for a “Captioning Goes to Court” interview with Derek of about movie captioning in the UK.

  2. A big THANK YOU to our own John Waldo for advancing access via captions in our theaters!! Did you know you can request a neckloop to use with the Theater’s Assistive Listening System ?
    Show your Thanks to John and the theaters by requesting assistive technology. Let’s all go to the movies!

    • Cheri – Yes, a big thank you to John and all advocates, not only for captioning inclusion, but access to assistive technology and looping. I am a big fan of the Let’s Loop Seattle initiative and appreciate your hard work.

  3. If its known how uncomfortable the glasses are to wear then what is being done to address that issue physically and legally?

    • I would say that consumers can go directly to the Sony Entertainment Access Glasses website to post their concerns about the product. Hopefully more captioning advocates, like John Waldo, will also contact Sony.

  4. I can’t remember the last time I saw an open captioned movie, which is unfortunate as it’s so much better than the alternatives. In my area, there’s just one chain that offers captions (at least so far as captionfish knows) and they just have the CaptiView devices. Plus a number of movies (including Batman and The Hobbit) they never got captions for 😦

  5. I have a slight hearing loss, and so I often turn on closed captions or subtitles when watching TV or DVDs so I can get all the dialog. Half of my family finds the captions distracting, which lessens their enjoyment of the show. One of my daughters specifically has a different disability that makes watching a captioned movie virtually impossible. Thus I can understand the reticence of theaters to use open captioning. Unless the video is being specifically targeted for hearing-impaired individuals, closed captioning is a going to be a better choice.

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  7. Reblogged this on marsthemartian's Blog and commented:
    The theaters near my home don’t have any sort of closed captioning devices or any open captioned showings. My father and I often go to the movies together and he always interrupts my viewing to ask me what the character says but I also don’t know! And then because he interrupts me, we both miss the next scene. I manage to get along in movie theaters by watching the action and trying to figure out what is going on by the body language of the actors. After reading this blog by Lipreading Mom, I’m tempted to confront my local theaters about their lack of support for those who are hard of hearing. I don’t see why they wouldn’t spend a little extra to make more and more customers come and enjoy their movies that otherwise couldn’t.

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