Late last month Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin went viral on Twitter after calling out Delta for the lack of closed captions on her flight’s seat-back entertainment system. “Sad to see that my preferred airline, @Delta flight 1998 has provisions for various languages and audio description for in-flight entertainment but no closed captions for deaf and hard of hearing flyers,” Matlin tweeted. The post has since received a million views and 48,000 likes.
Matlin was part of the initial effort to mandate general caption access in the early 1990s, when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. But in the three decades since, missing closed captions—or incorrect, usually automatic captions known in the community as “craptions”—continue to be a problem for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences in many venues, both in the air and on the ground.
As a Deaf passenger myself, I find the lack of access to airline entertainment particularly frustrating, largely because of the unpredictability. At times I’ve had my pick of several (though never all) captioned in-flight movie options on a domestic flight. Other times, I’ve found myself relegated to watching The Devil Wears Prada—a movie I have basically memorized—uncaptioned on repeat on a long travel day from New York to Australia. With no way for us to request or find out ahead of time whether a flight will offer captions, we remain at the mercy of seat-back screen roulette. Airlines’ customer service responses to this vary widely. Sometimes we’re offered an apology or a voucher, more often just radio silence.
So why are airlines moving at a glacial pace when it comes to accessibility?
In large part, they’re behind the times because they are legally permitted to be. The ADA, which requires the provision of “reasonable accommodations” for disabled people, doesn’t regulate air travel. Instead, carriers who operate flights departing from or arriving in the United States fall under the jurisdiction of an even earlier law, the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA). The ACAA provides only basic protections to ensure physically and intellectually disabled passengers, their caregivers, and service animals are allowed to travel, and mandates aircraft and lavatory accessibility for wheelchair-users. While the ADA is enforced by the Department of Justice, the ACAA falls under the supervision of the Department of Transportation.
Department of Transportation aviation rules were updated in 2008 to require captioning, but only with respect to safety and informational videos that the airline itself has created—and only on on-board TVs (seat-back or otherwise) that have been installed since 2009. If new equipment is installed, it “must have high-contrast caption capability,” but no updates are required on older planes.
As for in-flight entertainment, there are no rules requiring airlines to purchase or use captioned content. Representatives for several major carriers including Southwest, United, Virgin Atlantic, Delta, and American Airlines noted their compliance with federal regulations, and said missing captioning is often the result of movies and TV shows arriving from vendors without it. Representatives for Lufthansa, Emirates, and Qatar Airways did not respond to inquiries about their in-flight entertainment.
Because there are both hardware and third-party content issues at play, it can be difficult even for employees to pinpoint why captions are missing on a given flight. In a 2015 Twitter exchange with Deaf model and actor Nyle DiMarco, American Airlines addressed DiMarco’s query about a lack of captions saying they “do not show closed-captioned TV as a standard feature” because “closed-captioned writing on small screens may cover the monitors.” American Airlines did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the thread.
DiMarco continues to seek access to entertainment for the Deaf community and beyond. “Myself and the 466 million other deaf people in the world aren’t the only ones who benefit from captions… [they improve] viewing experiences for English-language learners, autistic people, and people with ADHD and learning disabilities,” he said in a text message.
Southwest, United, Virgin Atlantic, and American Airlines would not offer concrete information about the accessibility of their entertainment libraries. A representative for Delta said 89 percent of their fleet contains closed-caption capable screens, with 111 captioned videos available for viewing.
Where airlines do the minimum to adhere to DOT protocol, discriminatory business practice persists: deaf passengers pay the same ticket prices as our hearing counterparts without receiving access to the same services. Matlin, who had been traveling with her family at the time of her post, found this inequity all the more glaring in light of her husband’s experience. “While my husband could push any film and watch, I could not,” said Matlin in an email. “And it was frustrating because the experience of trying to watch a film was so wildly inconsistent.” Matlin also emphasized the importance of captioning all safety information, and suggested airlines provide guidance for hearing passengers on how to alert and aid fellow deaf or disabled travelers in the event of an emergency.
Matlin said she will continue to raise awareness about inequity in air travel until everybody is on board. “It worked when I helped pass legislation mandating closed captioning way back in the early ‘90s when I spoke up on talk shows and news programs,” she said. “Today, platforms like Twitter and Instagram serve the same function. Until airlines come up to speed when it comes to providing access for travelers who are deaf or hard of hearing, I will not stay silent.”