Seattle will require closed captioning for TVs in bars, restaurants and stadiums

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1 of 2 Under a new Seattle law, all places of public accommodation will be required to activate closed-captioning on their TVs during business hours. Shown here, Trailbend Taproom in Ballard. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
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2 of 2 When the new law takes effect in May, captioning will be shown at all times on TVs in public places in Seattle. Previously it was enough that closed captioning be available in places like restaurants, bars and gyms, but the idea of the new law is that a person should not have to request that the visual aid be activated. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Starting soon, a new Seattle law will require bars, restaurants, gyms, stadiums and other places of public accommodation to activate captions on their television sets during business hours.

The City Council voted unanimously earlier this month to adopt the change, which is meant to benefit people who are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as elderly people, people learning English as a second language and people with learning disabilities, attention deficits and autism.

Federal and city laws already require places of public accommodation to activate captions upon request. But Seattle’s new legislation, which Mayor Jenny Durkan signed last week and which will take effect in May, will go further.

“It’s important to shift the onus from having to request closed captions … [and] to instead create the expectation that folks have it in advance,” Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who sponsored the law, said in a statement.

The Seattle Commission for People with DisAbilities asked Herbold to advance the legislation. Similar laws are in place in some other cities, such as Portland and San Francisco.

Eric Scheir, a member of the deaf community and co-chair of the commission, championed the change and intends to next push for a statewide law. He said he’s had employees at restaurants in the past decline his requests for captions or not be able to activate them. Now captions will be the status quo.


“Myself and most deaf people and other groups that rely on closed captioning haven’t been able to enjoy bars and restaurants like others,” he said. “We’ve just gathered together to watch the Super Bowl and baseball games in private homes. Now we can go out in Seattle and enjoy just like people who listen.”

Bars and restaurants with televisions also are locations where people are alerted to breaking news and where they watch political debates. Scheir said he expects the law to boost business at establishments. “It’ll be a win-win,” he said. “I feel just wonderful.”

He was delighted last week when his favorite restaurant, Island Soul in Columbia City, had the captions on.

“I felt so comfortable,” he said. “After dinner I thanked the owner.”

Many bars keep their TVs muted and play music instead. But not all. At The Dray in Ballard, soccer games are sometimes shown with sound, said owner Jamie Butler.

He wants to make his bar accessible to everyone and will support Seattle’s new law. “I understand that you can’t rely on somebody asking … That doesn’t seem fair,” Butler said.


The bar owner wishes the city had worked harder to spread the word by now, and he expects some patrons to complain about captions obscuring sports action. That’s happened before, he said.

“I own three establishments,” said Butler, who heard about the change from The Seattle Times. “How do we implement this? How do I train my employees to be within the law?”

The Seattle Office of Civil Rights intends to educate businesses. That work could initially cost $25,000 to $50,000, according to the council. The office also will enforce the law and may have to add an employee.

Enforcement won’t actually begin for six months. A business found to be breaking the law will receive an advisory letter, possibly followed by a fine of up to $125. Subsequent violations could result in fines of up to $300.

The council included some exceptions based on conversations with business people. The new requirement won’t apply to businesses with older televisions that can’t show captions nor to programs for which captions are unavailable.

Stores that that set up displays of multiple televisions for sale will only need to activate captions on one set. John Engber, director of the Retail Industry Coalition of Seattle, said Herbold listened to the group’s concerns.

The law includes a section requesting that the office study the race and social-justice impacts of the requirement, “particularly on immigrant- or refugee-run businesses or those businesses requiring translation or additional technical assistance,” and report back later this year.

Captions were recently made available for live online broadcasts of council meetings.

Daniel Beekman: 206-464-2164 or dbeekman@seattletimes.com. . Seattle Times staff reporter Daniel Beekman covers Seattle city government and local politics.