National Association of the Deaf files lawsuit against Maryland, seeking captioning at sporting events (UPDATED)

September 24, 2013
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THIRD UPDATE (Last one I promise): According to the complaint, the defendants sent a letter on Feb. 8, 2013 “requesting captions for announcements made on public address systems, on the scoreboards, LED ribbon boards, and/or Jumbotron at Byrd Stadium and Comcast Center for those captions to be visible from all seats in each venue.”

So that’s what the plaintiffs want. The item before implies — by virtue of saying what Byrd Stadium didn’t do during updates in 2007 — that the plaintiffs desire captioning “for referee calls, play-by play commentary, song lyrics, safety and emergency information, half-time entertainment, post-game conferences, or any other aural information projected into the stadium bowls or concourse areas before, during, or after games.”

SECOND UPDATE: A statement from Brian Ullmann, assistant vice president of university marketing and communications:

“The University of Maryland is committed to providing an outstanding fan experience for all and we certainly do not discriminate against individuals with disabilities. We offer accommodations that we believe are in compliance with the law, including providing closed captioning of all game announcement through a special website accessible by any smart phone or tablet. We even offer the loan of tablets on gameday for those who require one. We continue to work to ensure an enjoyable game atmosphere for every one of our fans.”

UPDATE: Through an athletics spokesman, Maryland declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

According to Byrd Stadium’s A to Z guide, closed captioning of game announcements are available online on game days, accessible via smart phones or tablets. Maryland makes tablets available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

An individual with knowledge of the situation said that these measures were in place for Maryland’s two football home games this season against Florida International and Old Dominion. Zero requests were made, the individual said.

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The National Association of the Deaf has filed a lawsuit against the University of Maryland  “over the university’s long-standing and continuing failure to provide captioning of announcements and commentary made over the public address systems during athletic events at Byrd Stadium and Comcast Center,” according to a news release.

According to a copy of the lawsuit obtained by The Post, the University of Maryland, its Board of Regents and school president Wallace D. Loh are named as defendants.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt on behalf of Sean Markel and Joseph Innes, deaf individuals who regularly attend football games at Byrd Stadium and basketball games at Comcast Center. The suit seeks to install captioning on scoreboards and video screens at Comcast Center and Byrd Stadium.

According to Joseph B. Espo, a Baltimore-based attorney who filed the lawsuit, Maryland has displayed a willful ignorance and its current policy “discriminates against deaf and hard of hearing University of Maryland sports fans.” Reached by phone, Espo estimated that hiring someone to create the scoreboard captions would cost roughly $500 per game. Espo said he has attended events at Comcast Center, such as high school graduations, where open captioning is used on the four-sided video board.

“The University and its employees have known about this for years and did nothing,” Espo said in the release. “Deaf and hard of hearing fans are tired of being left out of the game.”

Espo said he has “had conversations with the university” about installing captioning at Byrd Stadium and Comcast Center, but when those talks stalled they filed their lawsuit. Pointing to Byrd Stadium’s recent $50.8 million expansion project, completed in 2009, Espo said captioning upgrades should have been included “long, long ago, but their golden opportunity was when they did those renovations.”

The lawsuit cites Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which says “public entities” must “provide appropriate auxiliary aids,” and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, “a national law that protects qualified individuals from discrimination based on their disability.”

A Maryland athletics spokesman has not yet responded to a request for comment.

In 2006, Espo was involved in another similar case, when the NAD sued the Washington Redskins seeking captioning at FedEx Field. The Redskins voluntarily started supplying captions after that lawsuit was filed, and in 2008 a federal judge ruled that they must continue to do so and also show the lyrics of songs played in the stadium during games, citing the Americans With Disabilities Act. That case also was decided in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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