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February 15, 2003

In-flight movies prompt lawsuit

From: Houston Chronicle, TX - 15 Feb 2003

Teenager says under law, films need captions


A hearing-impaired teenager from Houston has taken on the airline business because the carriers don't offer in-flight movies with captions.

A federal lawsuit was filed earlier this week on behalf of Sam Bynum, an 18-year-old high school senior who is severely hearing-impaired and relies upon captioning to watch TV and movies.

It contends Continental, American, United and several other carriers are violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by not accommodating him and more than 25 million others who have a severe hearing loss. He hopes to have the lawsuit certified as a class action.

Bynum likes to watch movies on planes but can't enjoy them like those who listen with headphones, said his lawyer, Marian S. Rosen.

"To see a film and not understand what is said is like not watching a film at all," Rosen said. She has also sued several movie production companies and movie theatre operators for not offering movies with captions for those who are hearing impaired.

United Airlines spokesman Jeff Green said the airline doesn't typically comment on pending litigation. But, he said, there are technical problems with putting captions on the screens.

For one, they'd be hard to fit on the small screens used on planes. With screens ranging in size from a paperback to a sheet of notebook paper, the type would either be tiny or take up much of the screen.

A spokeswoman at American Airlines said company policy prohibits officials from commenting on pending litigation. A representative from Continental Airlines did not return a call for comment.

But Houston lawyer Brady Edwards argued that adding subtitles would not be onerous.

The airlines run news shows on their movie/television screens, said Edwards, who represents passengers in a similar disability accommodation case.

There is room for the name of Larry King at the bottom of the screen, he said, so why not subtitles?

And he said the change would help the hearing impaired better understand the safety messages.

Edwards represents mobility-impaired passengers in wheelchairs and scooters who have sued Norwegian Cruise Lines after finding a ship serving Galveston where entire decks were inaccessible and their wheelchairs wouldn't fit in the hallways and elevators.

Many times, it doesn't cost a company much to make an accommodation, he said, adding that Norwegian Cruise Lines contends it doesn't have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act because it operates under foreign flags.

Norwegian Cruise Lines does not comment on pending litigation, according to the company's lawyer, Tom Wilson of Vinson & Elkins.

Disability laws require that companies must make reasonable accommodations to comply with the disabilities act, said Edwards' partner, David George.

The legal issue in the airlines' case may be determined by the cost of making captioned movies available.

For example, George said, small mom and pop businesses are not required to provide elevators to disabled customers because that would be too much of a financial burden. On the other hand, requiring a major hotel chain to provide elevators would be seen as a reasonable accommodation.

In this case, if airlines "are required to spend millions to retrofit every plane, that may not be reasonable, but if they just have to install software, that may be considered reasonable," George said.

© 2003 Houston Chronicle