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Monday, November 03, 2008
The Redskins and the ADA

Does the Americans with Disabilities Act require stadium owners to provide hearing-impaired fans equal access to aural content provided in stadiums?

That was the question presented to Judge Alexander Williams of the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Maryland in Shane Feldman (no relation), et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., et al. (also no relation). As you might recall (see post by Geoffrey here), three hearing-impaired Redskins fans filed suit against Pro Football, Inc. (the corporation that owns and operates the Redskins) and WFI Stadium (the corporation that owns and operates FedExField) in August 2006, alleging violations of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Title III of the ADA states that: “No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation.” 42 U.S.C. § 12182(a). The regulations also state that: “A public accommodation shall furnish appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to ensure effective communication with individuals with disabilities.” 28 C.F.R. § 36.03(c).

In October 2006, FedExField voluntarily began captioning certain announcements and pieces of information (in addition to emergency information), including, among other things: an announcement encouraging fans to cheer, a brief description of the previous play, the end of each quarter, penalties, advertisements and public service announcements, scores from other games, and the final score. The defendants continued to maintain, however, that the ADA did not require them to provide such captioning.

Judge Williams held a summary judgment hearing on September 29, 2008. At the hearing, the defendants argued that the ADA does not require them to provide captioning at FedExField because they provide assistive listening systems for hearing-impaired fans and because “all information that is integral to the use of the stadium can be gathered solely from watching the game.” The plaintiffs argued that the defendants did not provide hearing-impaired fans equal access to the information and announcements broadcast over FedExField’s public address system and that the defendants refused to provide captioning and other services to ensure that announcements made over the public address system were effectively communicated to all fans.

Judge Williams sided with the plaintiffs, holding that:

Defendants provide more than a football game; they also provide public address announcements, advertisements, music, and other aural information to hearing fans at FedExField. Presumably Defendants provide this aural information to hearing fans for a reason. This aural information is a good, service, facility, privilege, advantage, or accommodation. Without some form of auxiliary aid or service, Plaintiffs would not have equal access to this information. On the face of the statute, the Court believes and concludes that Title III of the ADA requires Defendants to provide deaf and hard of hearing fans equal access to the aural information broadcast over the stadium bowl public address system at FedExField, which includes music with lyrics, play information, advertisements, referee calls, safety/emergency information, and other announcements.

This broad reading of the ADA has caused a bit of a stir up in DC (though perhaps not as much of a stir as this election I keep reading about) and has resulted in a strange phenomenon—people are actually defending Dan Snyder. Whether other judges follow suit and what impact this has on other stadiums throughout the country remains to be seen.

Any ADA experts (or aspiring experts) out there who want to chime in with thoughts or reactions?


Im certainly no expert, and it has been a while since I read up on public accomodations but off the top of my head, here's what I got:

I think we all can agree that a sporting event is more than the actual competition. It includes the surrounding activities as part of the entire experience. My understanding is that the vendor is required to provide equal access and oportunity to persons with disabilities unless such accomodations would materially alter the nature of the service or constitute an undue burden or expense.

In this example, I doubt providing the requested services would materially alter the nature of the service, and it would probably not go as far as being an undue burden or expense either (I also believe there may be some tax incentives for special accomodations but don't quote me on that).

From what I see at stadiums in my town, most information is relayed both over the PA and on the bigscreen/jumbotron, perhaps not word-for-word, but the message is the same. Personally I think that is enough to comply, but what do I know...

Blogger Jimmy H -- 11/03/2008 7:46 PM  

Same credentials as jimmy h, so take the following with a 5# bag of salt.

"Presumably Defendants provide this aural information to hearing fans for a reason."

Aye, there's the rub. What's the reason? I see why people are defending Snyder; on the face of it, the adverts don't enhance the product. (That Snyder is taking advertisers's money based on full attendance and providing their ads to less than the full attendance is, or may be, another issue.) But it's not the case that the hearing-impaired have "opted-out"; they're being denied something that Redskin management deemed appropriate to the experience of seeing the game.

Similarly, I might offer to pay money not to have to hear "Rock and Roll Part 2" or "YMCA" or "We Will Rock You" at a sporting event ever again (NHL, are you listening?), but it is deemed part of the programming by the Redskins.

If it's part of the show, then there is no justification in not providing it to those who have paid full price for their ticket; if it's not, then I suspect there are a lot of fans who would prefer to opt out.

The Redskins should take their losses and highlight that they provide adverts and other add-ons to all customers. It's just Good Business, even if Snyder (as usual, shooting himself in the foot) would prefer to argue it's not The Law.

Blogger Ken Houghton -- 11/03/2008 9:05 PM  

Just another quick thing I wanted to throw in the mix...

equal does not mean the same, so in order to comply the vendor really only have to provide the same entertainment value, not an identical product.

And I agree with you Ken, I would PAY money to not have to listen to "We will rock you" 50 times next time I go to a Lightning game!

Blogger Jimmy H -- 11/03/2008 9:25 PM  

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