Mayor Michelle Wu last Friday signed an ordinance requiring that places of public accommodations in the City of Boston, such as restaurants, bars, banks, and gyms, turn on the closed captioning function on any televisions in public areas. The ordinance, sponsored by Council President Ed Flynn, was unanimously approved by the Boston City Council this week with the goal of removing barriers in public spaces related to communications access for people with disabilities.
“Improving communications access in public spaces across Boston is critical to Boston truly being for everyone,” said Mayor Michelle Wu. “This ordinance removes barriers for people with disabilities, and I am grateful to the Disabilities Commission, Disability Advisory Board and the entire Boston City Council for their leadership and advocacy.”
“This ordinance ensures persons with disabilities have full access to information and resources shared to the public,” said Council President Flynn. “I want to thank my City Council colleagues, Mayor Wu, and Commissioner McCosh for their leadership, and to the advocates for their work on this issue. This is a step towards accessibility. We will continue to focus on equity for residents and visitors with disabilities. Disability rights are civil rights.”
When businesses enable the “captions” function on their TVs, a live transcript of the program’s audio content is shown scrolling across the bottom of the screen. Requiring visible captions to be turned on will remove a significant communication barrier for people with hearing loss and other disabilities. This will also be beneficial to the general public, as it increases access to information in crowded and noisy commercial spaces where it may be difficult to hear.
“Lack of communication access on TVs in public places existed before COVID-19, but it is now recognized as a critical issue of equity,” said Disability Commissioner Kristen McCosh. “All televisions have the ability to enable closed captions for broadcasts, and cable and streaming services offer captions so this is something that is entirely free for businesses to do. This ordinance is a win-win that will ensure Boston’s businesses are more accessible and more welcoming to thousands of residents, workers and visitors. I want to thank our dedicated Disability Advisory Board members, past and present, for their advocacy on this issue, especially our Chair Wesley Ireland.”
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, TV stations broadcasted daily or weekly municipal press conferences, important public health updates, breaking news reports, emergency alerts, and other crucial information and timely instructions related to the pandemic response. However, that audible content was not accessible to the Deaf community, people with hearing disabilities, seniors experiencing hearing loss, people with developmental or sensory disabilities, and people who speak a language other than English.
In 2020, then Board Member Wesley Ireland raised the issue of requiring captions at a monthly Advisory Board meeting. After discussion, the Board requested that the Disability Commission look into how other municipalities have handled it. The Commission researched more than half dozen cities and one state who have instituted a similar captions requirement and worked with other departments to develop a proposal. The proposal was further refined after a City Council hearing took place in November 2021.
“I am excited to see Boston joining the ranks of other big cities like Seattle and San Francisco to require captioning on public-facing televisions,” said Disability Advisory Board Chair Wesley Ireland. “It is an equity issue I have faced in the past and it is finally addressed.”
The Disabilities Commission will work with other City Departments, including the Office of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion, Office of Neighborhood Services to conduct outreach to businesses across the City with information about the new ordinance. The Commission will assist businesses with coming into compliance by providing resources on enabling captions.
“This is an important moment in the ongoing push of our small businesses to ensure that all of our spaces are inclusive of everyone,” said Segun Idowu, Chief of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion. “Our team is committed to working with our small businesses to help them become more accessible for all.I am grateful to Commissioner McCosh and the Disabilities Commission and Disability Advisory Board for pushing this forward.”
The Commission will assist businesses by providing resources about how to enable captions in an effort to assist them with coming into compliance. For more information and future announcements regarding captioning in public spaces, please visit the City’s Disabilities Commission webpage.