Maryland lawmakers approve ‘groundbreaking’ bill to require captions on some movie screens

Since 2021, Jacob Leffler has advocated for Maryland movie theaters to make moviegoing more accessible for deaf and hard of hearing people.

In the last three years, legislation to require theaters to provide what’s known as “open caption” screenings has been introduced but failed to pass — until this session.

Lawmakers are now hailing the bill’s passage as “groundbreaking” legislation.

Leffler, with the Open Captioning Movie Committee, said the bill benefits a wide group of people, in addition those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“This bill also would benefit veterans who lost their hearing later in life, people who want to learn English as a second language, want to improve their reading writing skills, or people who have an issue with background noise,” said Leffler.

The bill requires theaters with eight or more screens to show open captioning movies and if the theater shows the same movie five times or more per week, open captioning movies must be shown twice a week the first three weeks of the premiere.

Open captions means the text on the screen is visible for all viewers and can’t be turned off.

“I don’t think it is an overreach to ask to include captions, frankly, when we weigh the number of people it would benefit,” said State Del. Harry Bhandari. “Closed captions on little handheld devices still have to be proactively requested, can be distracting out of sync, or plagued with technical problems.”

Many people who are deaf or hard of hearing, such as Usherla DeBerry, acting director of the Governor’s Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, said closed captioning devices impact their experience at theaters.

“When individual caption devices fail, the user is automatically and immediately excluded from the experience,” DeBerry said. “Open captions are inclusive; they allow for all of us to share the same experience together regardless of their hearing status or language skills.”

The bill next heads to Gov. Wes Moore’s desk for signing.

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Cheyenne Corin

Cheyenne Corin joined the WTOP News team in February 2023. Prior to this role she was a Montgomery County, Maryland, bureau reporter at WDVM/DC News Now.

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