Public Venue Access Coming to Washington State

Editor: You’ve met John Waldo and his Wash-CAP organization on these pages before, so I thought you’d enjoy this update. John has made it his goal to get access to captioning at many facilities in Washington State, and he is succeeding! Could John’s story be an inspiration for YOU to get something going in your community?

November 2008

Dear Wash-CAP members and friends,

As I suppose is true for a lot of folks, I’ve been pretty obsessed the last few weeks with this historic Presidential election. As a result, my correspondence has badly fallen behind.

I want to take this opportunity to welcome all of our new members, to thank our members and friends for their support, and to update you on what we have been able to accomplish in the past few months.

As you know, the dream behind the Washington State Communication Access Project is to make Washington’s public places and activities accessible to those of us with hearing loss. We have taken a systematic approach, focused on one type of facility at a time. We think such a focused approach provides us with numerous advantages, among them being learning a lot about the technologies and the specific vendors available to provide the kind of aids and services we need.

We begin always by contacting the facility, explaining that hard-of-hearing individuals are a large and growing population with distinct needs, and asking them to work with us to meet those needs. Many of the facilities have cooperated. If our first effort isn’t successful, the follow-up contact focuses more particularly on their legal obligations and our legal rights under the Washington Law Against Discrimination, which is a considerably more useful and powerful statute than the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. We also point them to organizations and vendors that can help them help us.

As a last resort, if the facility either refuses to cooperate or stops communicating, we institute legal action. Even then, we do not ask for damages, only for a court order directing the facility to do what we had originally asked.

We determined that a logical place to begin our focused effort was with live theaters. We started there because we know that even the smallest-budget theaters can do something to improve the enjoyment of hearing-impaired patrons, even if that something is as simple and primitive as providing us with a script and a small flashlight to read along as the play unfolds. We are asking the larger and larger-budget theaters to provide captioned performances, where the dialogue and song lyrics are displayed on a reader-board in synch with the play. A block of seats is set aside in the area where the captioning is visible.

Here is our status report to date:

Seattle Paramount Theatre – Paramount has presented captioned performances of A Chorus Line, Phantom of the Opera and Spring Awakening. On Dec. 28, a performance of Color Purple will be captioned. Paramount is committed to captioning at least one performance of each of its Broadway shows.

Seattle 5th Avenue Theatre – 5th Avenue initially refused the caption option, but reconsidered once Wash-CAP filed suit. Beginning in the 2009-10 season, 5th Avenue will caption at least one performance of each of its seven annual productions. This year, 5th Avenue is offering scripts in lighted binders, something we are asking them to continue doing after it initiates captioning.

Intiman Theatre, Seattle Center – The Seattle Center venues have been extraordinarily cooperative and helpful. They have adopted the vision we suggested of making Seattle Center a national model for accessiblity. Given the different venue sizes and types of productions, it can serve as a sort of laboratory to help determine which methods of providing access are best suited technically and economically to particular situations.

Intiman has said it is reviewing all of its disability-access approaches, and is looking for input from Wash-CAP as well as from other organizations representing both the hearing-loss population and other types of physical or sensory challenges.

Seattle Rep – Another Seattle Center venue, Seattle Rep has committed to an investigation of how best to undertake captioning. We put them together with the New York-based Theatre Development Fund and its access coordinator, Lisa Carling, who worked with both Paramount and 5th Avenue to instigate their captioning efforts.

Seattle Arts and Lectures – SAL is looking right now at captioning for its author presentations. They promise to get back to us by the end of the year, and we are optimistic that they will undertake that effort in the near future.

Qwest and Safeco Fields – We have asked both the Seahawks and Mariners to display captioned versions of their public-address announcements on one or more of the numerous stadium scoreboards. A federal judge in Maryland just ordered the Washington Redskins football team to do just that, and we are therefore hopeful that our local teams will cooperate without the need for court action.

Washington State Ferries – Though obviously not a live theater, we are aware that WSF is undertaking a system-wide review of its operational and capital needs, so we thought that if we wanted to improve accessibility, we should act now.

We asked WSF to caption the public-address announcements it makes on board its vessels and at its terminals. While some of those announcements are routine — things like the general welcoming announcement from the Governor — we were concerned about the specific announcements dealing with things like lost objects, car-alarm systems activating, etc.

Unfortunately – possibly due to personnel changes – WSF either did not receive or did not respond to some of our inquiries, and the whole communications process stopped. We then filed court action — a step that, among other things, simply can’t be ignored.

I am pleased to report that WSF has essentially surrendered. We are in the process of trying to work out the exact language of a court order that will end the legal proceedings, but essentially, WSF has agreed to undertake a multi-step process as follows:

1) Immediately send out a Request for Information asking potential vendors how best to go about providing captioned on-board and in-terminal announcements;

2) Share the responses with Wash-CAP and other advocacy organizations;

3) Based on the responses to the RFI and the feedback from advocacy groups, draft a Request For Proposals asking for specific quotes on the type of equipment necessary;

4) Install captioning equipment and systems on the Bainbridge boats for a six-month trial;

5) If the trial is successful, develop an installation schedule for the remainder of the system. If the trial is unsuccessful, devise another means by which information delivered over the public-address systems can be effectively communicated to passengers with hearing losses.

We believe our focused and systematic approach to advocacy is working, thanks in no small part to our dedicated and knowledgeable Board of Directors led by President Bert Lederer. But to increase our ability to work on behalf of all of us, we need to grow our membership. If you are not a member, please consider joining — it costs nothing, and requires only an email to me with the word “membership” in the subject line. Once you are “on board,” then we want you to let us know about the challenges you face, and how you could envision Wash-CAP working on your behalf.