City of Portland, Ore., passes TV caption ordinance

In 2014, a coalition of concerned citizens called Portland: Turn on the Captions Now brought the issue of local businesses not turning the captions on their televisions to the attention of Portland, Ore., City Commissioner Amada Fritz. A year later, on Dec. 18, 2015, an ordinance took effect that requires captions be turned on all the time on televisions in public places throughout the city. The expectation of the coalition: Businesses in Portland will turn on the captions once, and leave them on.

“The members of this coalition found that most often when they would ask for captions to be turned on at places that had televisions, the employees of the business would say they didn’t know how to turn them on, or they could not find the remote control, or it was too hard to do when they were busy,” said NCRA member Carol Studenmund, RDR, CRC, CRC, a broadcast captioner and member of the Portland: Turn on the Captions Now coalition.

“Comcast is the major cable provider in Portland. And turning the captions on through a Comcast box is not always easy to do, even if you know how to work with TV equipment. Some businesses turn on the captions all the time and enjoy having them on. But those businesses are in the minority,” added Studenmund, who also serves on NCRA’s Broadcast and CART Captioning Committee.

Joining Studenmund on the coalition were also Portland residents Jim House and Steve Brown, both deaf and long-time advocates for the deaf community on city, state, and nationals levels, as well as David Viers, a long-time advocate for people with hearing loss who wears two cochlear implants.

According to Studenmund, prior to the ordinance, many businesses with televisions would have them turned on sometimes with the sound on and only sometimes with captions on, 99 percent of the time for entertainment purposes only. However, when emergency coverage goes on the air, the captions need to be visible so that everyone can understand what is being said. “The bottom line of this effort was to make sure all citizens in Portland have access to important information during times of emergency,” she said.

Studenmund said that captions can also help people learn to read and learn the English language. In Multnomah, Ore., for example, County Sheriff Dan Staton ordered that captions be turned on the televisions located in the county jail over two years ago as a way to teach inmates how to read. In addition, when the National Captioning Institute sold caption decoders before televisions were required to have caption decoders built in, more than 40 percent of the people who purchased a decoder reported that it was to help them learn English as a second – or third or fourth – language.

“During the process of getting this ordinance written and passed, the U.S. Department of Transportation implemented a rule requiring all televisions in U.S. airports have the captions turned on all the time. That U.S. DOT rule helped the City Council come to its decision about this local ordinance. The vote of the Council was 5-0,” said Studenmund.

According to Studenmund, businesses should not have to spend any money to accomplish providing captioning on their television sets. Comcast, she noted, is ready to help its business customers turn on the captions. In addition, Portland has created a website with more information and may fine a business up to $500 per day for not turning on captions.

“But it is not the city’s goal to need to impose that fee on any business,” said Studenmund. “The goal is to turn the captions on and leave them on. Any fine would be imposed only after many unsuccessful attempts are made to get the captions turned on.”

Portland: Turn on the Captions Now also created a website with information about its efforts to help ensure the captioning ordinance was approved. In addition, a number of organizations representing people who are deaf, as well as chapters of the Hearing Loss Association of America, are looking to Portland’s efforts as a model for possible legislation around the country. Among those chapters is the Hearing Loss Association of America – Kansas City Chapter, which recently launched the Kansas: Open Caption Initiatives and Kansas: Turn On the TV Captions Now projects. The projects will help build statewide support for a mandate requiring captions on all TVs located in public places, as well as open captioning in movie theaters and at major public events.