Caption lawsuit expands, plaintiffs file two additional complaints

The National Association of the Deaf and the two deaf Terrapins sports patrons who sued the university in September for inadequate captioning at sporting events filed a second complaint Wednesday with additional violations.

Along with failing to provide captioning for announcer’s comments on scoreboards and Jumbotrons, the university lacks captioning on media published on the athletic department’s website, said Joseph Espo, the attorney representing Sean Markel and Joseph Innes, the two patrons. These include videos of entire sporting events, press conferences, event clips and radio streams, Espo said. He added that the captioning services the university says it provides aren’t adequate.

For six years, Markel and Innes, who are deaf, have been asking the university for better ways to communicate announcers’ comments on scoreboards, LED ribbon boards and Jumbotrons at Byrd Stadium and Comcast Center. The university doesn’t display captioning for referee calls, safety and emergency information, commentary during the game, half-time entertainment or game press conferences, according to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. 

The two men had been going to games for at least 20 years, and the university had never provided captions, Espo said.

After Espo filed the initial lawsuit in late September, university officials told The Diamondback that game announcements were adequately captioned online and provided on tablets patrons could request to use during games. 

In a statement, Crystal Brown, the university’s chief communication officer, wrote that the university was committed to providing an “outstanding fan experience for all” and did not discriminate against people with disabilities.

“We offer accommodations that we believe are in compliance with the law,” she wrote, mentioning the online smartphone and tablet services.  

But Espo said these measures still violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act, which prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in public places.

“If you communicate through the use of American Sign Language, you need your hands to talk, so you can’t talk while you’re holding your tablet,” he said. “They’re hard to read in the sun; they get ruined in the rain; we believe the quality won’t be very good because they seem to be using some sort of speech-to-text computer program rather than a live captioner.”

After first learning of these accommodations in The Diamondback in September, the plaintiffs tried to use them at the Oct. 12 football game but were informed the website was not working and captions were not available, according to the complaint filed.

Gary Muggleton, a sophomore family science major who is deaf, said this was his first semester at the university and he had only attended one football game, but he did not ask for captioning accommodations based on negative experiences with other sporting events. He’d asked the Bowie Baysox minor-league baseball team, Washington Redskins and Baltimore Orioles for captioning services and was ignored each time, he said.

“I didn’t ask for captioning at Byrd Stadium because I’m used to sport stadiums not having captioning,” Muggleton said using chat software. “I’m used to sport stadiums ignoring my requests all the time, so why should I bother?”

But Muggleton said the university’s tablet services wouldn’t be adequate. They’re like the captioning services provided in movie theaters, where deaf patrons have to get special reflector glasses at the box office.

Because of the hassle, Muggleton hasn’t been to the movies since 2010.

“I refused to go in there,” he said. “I prefer to walk into [the] theater screen like a normal person and walk out without having to deal with additional hassles with [the] box office.”

Similarly, borrowing tablets from the university would require fans to wait in lines to get them and return them, the complaint read. Even those who do own such devices would have to go to a “fan assistance center” before each game and obtain the address and password for the website with captions, the complaint stated. 

The university had 21 days to file an answer to the initial lawsuit, but because of the new complaint, the university has until Oct. 30 to respond, Espo said. Brown said the university’s legal counsel were reviewing the new complaints and did not yet have a response. 

The system is “discrimination,” Muggleton said. 

“How can UMD [have] a lot of time to give out free things, food, drink, and other things, yet they have no time for captioning?” he said. “From what I heard, Comcast Center offers free open captioning for high school graduation[s]. I mean, why not sports events too?”

With open captions, Muggleton said, he wouldn’t have to miss out on announcements at events.  

“I can use both of my hands for sign to communicate or eat,” Muggleton said. “It makes me feel like a normal student, like other hearing students.”

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