U of Oregon moves the bar for athletic facility access

U of Oregon moves the bar for athletic facility access

September 2011

Editor: Here’s John Waldo’s latest report on the very successful advocacy efforts in the Pacific Northwest. For more on how they’re making a difference up there, point your browser http://www.hearinglosslaw.com .

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The University of Oregon announced this week that it is beginning to offer open captioning of the stadium announcements at its football stadium, and continues to investigate doing the same at its other athletic venues. When that program is fully implemented, the U of O will become the national pace-setter in making athletic facilities accessible to fans with hearing loss.

The captions will be displayed on the scoreboards, visible to all attendees from any seat. A remote captioner working through a telephone or internet connection will convert the public-address announcements, penalty calls and intermission information into text form, accessible to anyone unable to hear what is being said.

The announcement comes after almost two years of ongoing advocacy efforts by individuals in the Eugene, Oregon area, and after a series of meetings between the university athletic department and representatives from the Oregon Communication Access Project (OR-CAP). The continuing cooperation between the university and the advocacy groups enabled us to reach this outcome without litigation or animosity.

The driving force behind the advocacy effort was the completion of the Matthew Knight Arena, the home of Oregon’s basketball and volleyball teams. Several members of the Hearing Loss Association of Oregon contacted the athletic department, and became part of an ongoing effort to design disability-frlendly features for the new arena.

The university intially offered to provide captioning displayed on portable hand-held devices. After field-testing the devices, though, the advocates felt that they did not provide effective communication for a number of reasons that they enumerated in writing to the U of O. Chief among those reasons were the need to check the devices in and out, the frequent difficulties in establishing and maintaining connections, the difficulty of looking down to the device and back up at the field and court, and the inconvenience and “yuck” factor stemming from the need to tote the devices to the rest room.

In order to resolve the apparent impasse, U of O undertook a series of regular community meetings beginning in June of this year with an advocacy team from OR-CAP and some members of the Deaf community in Eugene. While U of O took our concerns about the shortcomings of hand-held devices seriously, university officials were initially uncertain about how scoreboard captioning could actually be undertaken at the Knight Arena.

Fortunately, our team included Carol Studenmund and Lisa Monfils from LNS Captioning in Portland. Carol, who is under contract with the National Basketball Association to provide captioning at the annual All Star Weekend. She demonstrated to U of O officials that the screens on the central Jumbotron scoreboards could be reconfigured to slightly reduce the vertical dimension of the replay screen, making room for two lines of captioned text below. U of O asked our group whether that was acceptable, and we were ecstatic.

After resolving the arena problem, the university turned its attention to its other athletic facilities. It was able to make scoreboard captioning a reality at its football facility in time for the home opener last week. It expects to provide captioning capability at the baseball park in time for the 2012 season, and at its track facility not only for the spring track season but for the Olympic Trials that will take place in Eugene next summer.

One legitimate question U of O officials raised is what events need to be captioned. They were particularly concerned about lightly attended events for which no admission may be charged. We agreed with them that it would be reasonable to establish an expected attendance threshhold at which the event will automatically be captioned, then to make captioning available upon request for events that would fall below that threshhold. That arrangement, we believe, will expose people who think their hearing is “normal” to the benefits of captioning without burdening the university with the expense of providing captions where there would be little or no audience or interest — an arrangement we believe to be consistent with the “undue burden” defense of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Stadium captioning has been an ongoing legal challenge. The National Association of the Deaf has spearheaded successful legal actions against the Washington Redskins professional footbal team and the Ohio State University, and is currently involved in litigation against the University of Kentucky. Too often, facility managers have taken the position that one does not need to hear the public-address announcements to enjoy a sports event. But as the court said the in the Redskins case, the announcements, information, songs, etc., are all provided “for a reason,” and therefore, if it’s something that enhances the overall experience for the hearing fans, it’s something that the deaf and hard of hearing fans are also entitled to enjoy.

The polite but persistent advocacy of the OR-CAP and HLA-OR members, the technical savvy from LNS and above all the good work and good will of Mike Duncan and the University of Oregon athletic and technical people have created a national model for accessible athletic venues, one that we hope other universities around the country will emulate.

The Oregon Communication Access Project (OR-CAP) is a non-profit membership corporation whose purpose is to enrich the lives of individuals with hearing loss by making public places accessible through means such as captioning. It is a sister organization of the Washington State Communication Access Project (Wash-CAP). John Waldo, an attorney with a significant hearing loss, is counsel to both groups.