Deaf Man Prevails in Movie Theater Case as Department of Justice Issues Rules

Posted on March 22, 2017

2017 has so far been a good year for Portland movie buff Greg Scheuer. Greg, who is Deaf, has been advocating for equal access to movie theaters for years. He treasures the opportunity to head to the movies, especially with his hearing son, eat popcorn and enjoy the show. Greg firmly believes that all people, including the Deaf, should have equal opportunity to enjoy a movie, just like everyone else in the community.  

In July 2015, Greg was excited about going to the movies at the Nordica Theatre in Freeport, Maine. The Nordica was a new (built in 2011), state of the art digital movie theater, fully equipped with digital projectors featuring the latest technology. The theater even advertised high back rocking chairs for an “extra comfortable movie going experience.” Greg couldn’t wait to go.

When Greg inquired at the Nordica box office, however, he learned that the theater had no closed captioning technology. This meant that movies at the Nordica were not accessible to him.  Nordica staff told him that they did not have closed captioning technology and would not provide it until the Department of Justice issued its regulations regarding movie theaters.

Fortunately, Greg would not take “no” for an answer. He knew that it simply was not defensible for this new digital theater to fail to provide closed captioning for the Deaf. Greg filed a complaint at the Maine Human Rights Commission to compel the theater to provide equal access.

At the Maine Human Rights Commission, the Nordica admitted to the investigator that it had no closed caption technology for the Deaf, but that it was waiting to provide the equipment until the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued its final rules on the subject, a process that began in 2010. The theater also argued that providing closed captioning technology would be an undue financial burden.

DRM’s Kristin Aiello, who represented Greg before the Commission, countered that the cost of the closed captioning equipment ($7,500) was small compared to the other costs regularly incurred by the Nordica, which is part of a network of theaters, and did not constitute an undue burden. In addition, the Nordica’s position that it could wait until the final DOJ regulations were issued was not a valid defense to a claim under the Maine Human Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. While regulations are helpful, movie theaters have an existing obligation to comply with these laws regardless of whether or not regulations exist.

After looking into the matter, the Maine Human Rights Commission’s investigator issued a report recommending that there were reasonable grounds to believe that the Nordica Theatre discriminated against Greg when it failed to provide closed captioning, and providing closed captioning was not an undue burden. The Nordica filed objections to the report, arguing that the $7,500 cost for closed captioning was an undue burden. 

In December 2016, while Greg’s case was pending before the Maine Human Rights Commission, the DOJ issued its long-awaited rules on movie captioning.  These rules require movie theaters to provide closed captioning June 2, 2018.  In publishing the final rules, the DOJ noted that even without these regulations, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires movie theaters to offer captioned movies.  Although captioning is not specifically mentioned in the text of the ADA, open captioning is listed in the legislative history as an example of how to provide equal access to movies for Deaf and hard of hearing individuals.  In the December 2016 rules, the DOJ reviewed the history of the technology of movies and concluded that it would not be a fundamental alteration of the movie business to show movies with closed captioning, as most movies are now distributed digitally, with closed captioning capability.

Then, on February 27, 2017, the Maine Human Rights Commission voted unanimously to adopt the findings of the investigator that the Nordica unlawfully discriminated against Greg Scheuer when it failed to provide closed captioning technology, and providing this technology was not an undue hardship.  Greg Scheuer, the Nordica Theatre and the Maine Human Rights Commission are currently participating in the conciliation process to resolve the claim with the main goal of ensuring that the theater is accessible to the Deaf. 

In the words of Greg Scheuer, he pursued this case not just for himself, but “on behalf of every Deaf or hard of hearing Mainer and their families, including hearing children, parents or grandparents...” Disability Rights Maine is grateful to Greg for refusing to take no for an answer and for his steadfast dedication to pursue equal access in the community. Thank you, Greg!

Learn more about: