If you operate a business that is open to the public in Washington State and has forward-facing TV’s in your establishment, you will want to be aware of a new state captioning law that went into effect last month (July 2021). Washington State is the first state to mandate closed captioning in public places, at all timesThis is a major victory for deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers in Washington State, helping to make it one of the most deaf-friendly states in the country. 

What are the benefits of captions?

  • Deaf and hard-of-hearing people deserve to enjoy media content like your other customers. 
  • All kinds of people benefit from closed captions, not just deaf and hard of hearing.
  • Closed captions ensure both weather and emergency information is accessible to everyone.  
  • Most people struggle to understand television in loud places. Closed captions help solve this.
  • Not everyone’s first language is English. Closed captions help those who are learning English. 
  • There is no cost to businesses to turn on closed captions. 

When does this law go into effect?

Right now! It went into effect on July 25, 2021. Businesses have until October 23, 2021, to be in full compliance. 

What does this mean?

You must have any public-facing televisions with the captions turned on, at all times. This includes restaurants, bars, salons/barber shops, hotel lobby’s, waiting rooms, or any public place.

Why is this a big deal for the deaf person? 

  • It is exhausting to have to constantly ask for businesses to turn on their closed captions. 
  • It is also frustrating to interact with employees who don’t know how to find the closed captioning setting on the device and struggle (or fail!) to figure it out. 
  • It is equally, if not more, upsetting when a business refuses outright to turn on closed captions because it bothers other people (or for any other arbitrary reason). 

Now businesses are mandated by state law to make sure these scenarios never happen. 

The law makes it clear: the responsibility now falls exclusively to businesses and not the consumer. Businesses alone are responsible for training their employees to ensure they know they are required to have the closed captions on at all times and train them to know how to do so (before a request is ever made).

Who was responsible for passing this law?

The Senate Bill 5027 was sponsored by Washington State Senators: Senator Mike Padden (R), Senator Jesse Salomon (D), Senator Sam Hunt (D) Senator Liz Lovelett, Senator Derek Stanford (D), Senator Claire Wilson (D), and was written as an amendment to the existing Washington State Law Against Discrimination RCW 49.60.  

Sent to the committee for review, it was amended twice: to allow a place of public accommodation to deactivate closed captioning at the request of a person who has a visual impairment for as long as the requester is present, and to require text to be white color with a black background and in a style and size that is readable to people with low vision.

The law was passed by Washington State Legislature in April 2021 and signed by the Governor the following month

It is noteworthy that this law was passed not only with bipartisan support through the House and the Senate, but it also passed unanimously in both houses and quite quickly from its introduction at the end of December 2020 to its arrival on the Governor’s desk for signing barely four months later in May 2021.

Are there any exemptions?

The following exemptions are included in the law: businesses that sell televisions only need to have one television set activated with closed captions. Businesses with multiple televisions on (such as a sports bar) can have half of their screens on closed captions and half without closed captions. However, the screens with no closed captions must be clearly set to mute. 

Who oversees this law?

The Washington State Human Rights Commission (HRC) will oversee the law’s implementation and enforcement. The Commission is also charged with making sure businesses are aware of this new change and what it means for them and will provide businesses with requested education. HRC will respond to complaints of violations and open investigations. Businesses that are found to be in violation will be given a written notice along with a fine of $75 for first-time offenses. A business will have an opportunity to have the fine removed if they can demonstrate compliance within thirty days. All subsequent offenses will be fined $150 for each violation. 

How is this different from what is already covered by the American Disabilities Act (ADA)?

This goes a critical step further than ADA; before a business only had to turn on captions after a consumer made a request for reasonable accommodation (to turn on the closed captions). Now it has to have them already turned on, always.

Not sure what to do now?

The Washington State Human Rights Commission provides guidance on closed captioning in places of public accommodation. Visit them here for more information. 

If you’re interested in going a step further to make your business inclusive to deaf and hard of hearing customers, take our Deaf-Friendly Basics Training so you never feel uneasy or awkward again interacting with deaf and hard of hearing customers.

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