A Milestone Piece of Legislation, the ADA Turns 30

by: David Titmus

This Sunday (July 26) marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the first comprehensive civil rights legislation addressing and granting basic accessibility needs for people with disabilities.

ADA 30th anniversary logoThe act dramatically changed – and improved – the social and political landscape of the United States, and greatly advanced the rights of people with disabilities. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that some of the rights and benefits that we now take for granted didn’t exist or were difficult to come by just three decades ago.

Among other things, the ADA ensures fair employment practices and equal access to jobs, physical access to all public and many private spaces, accessible communications, adequate housing, and accessible public transportation.

Without the ADA, even something as simple as curb cuts at street crossings and ramps at entryways for wheelchair users might not exist. And, now, because of it, individuals of all abilities benefit from them, whether they’re pushing strollers or carts or have difficulty navigating steps.

The same holds true with captions. While the ADA didn’t specifically address captioning for television, the law helped shine a light on the need for communications accessibility and telecommunications equality. As a result, millions of Americans now benefit from closed captioning in addition to those who rely on it, including early readers, people learning English as their second language, and anyone trying to watch television or videos in a noisy bar or gym.

For the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, the few laws in place prior to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act were limited in scope and required equal communication access mainly for entities that received federal funding. The act went a long way to expand the number and types of places that are required to provide accessible communications, whether it be through assistive listening systems and devices, sign language interpretation, captioning, telephone handset amplifiers, text telephones, or simple written materials.

Captions, Captioning Rules Move Forward

Captions already had been around for a number of years before the signing of the ADA. In fact, this past March marked the 40th anniversary of closed captions on television when broadcasters ABC, NBC, and PBS debuted closed-captioned television shows in 1980, starting with “The ABC Sunday Night Movie,” “Disney’s Wonderful World,” and “Masterpiece Theatre.”

Open captions − captions that appear on the screen for everyone to see that can’t be turned on and off − had been introduced a handful of years earlier in 1972 on rebroadcasts of “The French Chef with Julia Child” and ABC News programs.

And we’re proud to say that VITAC has been there almost from the beginning. One of our founders – Marty Block – was the first person ever to live caption on television (the 1982 Oscars), while another of our founders – Jeff Hutchins – was the first man to be awarded a patent for a line 21 captioning encoder.

Captioning rules and regulations also have expanded over the years, reinforcing the need and absolute right of equal access to television for deaf and hard of hearing viewers. Below are just a few of the milestones in the captioning industry realized after the passage of the ADA.

1990 – The Television Decoder Circuitry Act was passed − the same year the ADA was enacted − and mandated that all televisions 13 inches or larger manufactured for sale in the United States contain caption decoders.

1996 – The Telecommunications Act of 1996 required that digital television receivers contain caption-decoding technology, and set forth benchmarks that would promulgate the use of captioning.

2010 – The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act required, among other things, that video programming that is closed captioned on TV also be captioned when distributed on the Internet.

2012 – A settlement in National Association of the Deaf (NAD) v. Netflix would provide increased access to movies and television streamed on the Internet for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. The lawsuit charged the entertainment giant with violating the ADA by failing to provide closed captioning for most of its content.

● 2015 – Resolving concerns from deaf and hard-of-hearing communities to improve captioning quality, the FCC put in place a series of Caption Quality Best Practices, which included rules for accuracy, synchronicity, completeness, and placement of captions.

2016 – Online video clips are required to be closed captioned if any portion of the clip appeared on television or via IP closed captioned at any time. A similar rule went into effect one year later that required montage video clips to be closed captioned from any prerecorded programming captioned on television or via IP.

The captioning industry continues to grow today, with new technologies being explored as new media and video outlets become more popular. The ADA, itself, continues to evolve as new accessibility concerns are brought forth and courts across the country take up cases and claims and rule on interpretations.

VITAC is proud to support the Americans with Disabilities Act’s 30th Anniversary.