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Closed Captioning: A Language Access Tool

Closed Captioning: A Language Access Tool

Effective communication in local government is essential, both to understand others and to be understood. Closed captioning is a tool that helps both public and private sectors effectively communicate spoken dialog when delivered via a digital screen. This blog discusses a 2021 state law requiring closed captioning to be activated on televisions in public places when the technology is available.

Closed Captioning on Televisions in Public Places

Most newer televisions have technology that includes an option to display closed captioning showing a written text of audio dialog that is spoken as part of the programming. The 2021 Washington State Legislature passed SB 5027 with a new legal requirement for closed captioning on televisions in places of public accommodation. A new section was added to the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), chapter 49.60 RCW.

RCW 49.60.520 provides:

(1)(a) Any person that owns or manages a place of public accommodation that offers a closed-captioned television receiver for use in any public area must activate closed captioning with black background, white text color, and a style and size of font that is readable to people with low vision, unless:

(i) The only receiver of television programming available in a public area is technically incapable of displaying closed captioning; or

(ii) The place of public accommodation is otherwise exempt from the closed captioning requirement under state or federal law.

(b) In a public area with multiple televisions, up to 50 percent of on-premises televisions may be exempt from displaying closed captioning. The exempted televisions must clearly display that they do not have volume or are on mute.

(c) A place of public accommodation may deactivate closed captioning on a television receiver actively displaying text at the request of a vision impaired person. The deactivation of closed captioning is for the length of time the requestor is at the place of public accommodation.

(2) If multiple television models are displayed together for sale in a public area, at least one closed-captioned television must be available for viewing.

(3) If after 90 days from July 25, 2021, a person that owns or manages a place of public accommodation fails to comply with the requirements of this section, that person shall be subject to a civil fine of up to $75 for each violation. Written notice of the violation must be provided to the person and must state that the fine will be assessed. The notice must also state that the person has an opportunity to cure the violation by complying with the requirement within 30 days after delivery of the notice. If the person demonstrates compliance within the 30-day period, the fine will not be assessed, and the violation must be dismissed. Any subsequent violation shall result in a civil fine of up to $150.

(4) For purposes of this section the following definitions apply:

(a) "Closed-captioned television receiver" means a receiver of television programming that has the ability to display closed captioning including, but not limited to, a television, digital set-top box, and other technology capable of displaying closed captioning for television programming.

(b) "Closed captioning" means a transcript or dialog of the audio portion of a television program that is displayed on either the bottom or top portion of a television receiver screen when the user activates the feature. There is no requirement for the closed-captioned transcript or dialog to be in any language other than the language of the audio programming, or a default language where a television receiver only displays one language.

(c) "Public area" means any part of a place of public accommodation that is open to the general public.

(5) A violation of this section is a violation of this chapter.

(6) The human rights commission must prepare an educational pamphlet advising employers and employees of their duty and liability under this section. The pamphlet should be made available online. Employers must provide employees with training on this section using the pamphlet.

This state law provides a requirement that television programming displayed in places open to the public include closed captioning when available. The Washington Human Rights Commission (HRC) has developed an educational pamphlet about this law: Closed Captioning in Places of Public Accommodation.

Individuals, public agencies, and other organizations may be encouraged to turn on and use this feature for closed-captioning-capable televisions in less public places, such as employee break rooms, cafeterias, and other places where use of a television is part of the workplace. Local governments may support the move to more utilization of closed captioning in their television broadcasts, such as for public meetings and other video presentations.

Additionally, there are closed captioning options in remote meeting and webinar platforms, including Zoom and Teams. Please keep in mind that these platforms create separate digital files of captions that are subject to public records retention and disclosure. Note that RCW 49.60.520 does not apply to platforms like Zoom and Teams.

Federal Closed Captioning Rules

Federal law requires video programming distributors — including cable operators, broadcasters, satellite distributors and other multi-channel video programming distributors — to provide closed captioning in their programs. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules for closed captioning in television programming help to make sure viewers who are deaf and/or have low hearing may have full access to programming. The FCC rules also address captioning quality and provide guidance to video programming distributors and programmers. Here is a link to the FCC closed caption video rules: Closed Captioning of Video Programming - 47 CFR § 79.1.

Language Access Tools

MRSC has a topic page with resources about Language Access. These resources include legal requirements related to both elections and to court services. This topic page provides language requirements and resources for use by local governments in Washington State, including information on civil rights compliance issues related to Limited English Proficiency (LEP), language access plans, language requirements relating to voting rights, court requirements, and other language services.

The new closed captioning requirements in the WLAD are another tool for effective communication with members of the public.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Linda Gallagher

Linda Gallagher joined MRSC in 2017. She previously served as a Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for King County and as an Assistant Attorney General.

Linda’s municipal law experience includes risk management, torts, civil rights, transit, employment, workers compensation, eminent domain, vehicle licensing, law enforcement, corrections, and public health.

She graduated from the University of Washington School of Law.