How Five Associations Went From Adversaries to Allies

In what is being called a historic agreement, several associations recently worked out a deal to create closed-captioning access in every movie theater across the country. Some of the key players offer a behind-the-scenes look at how the agreement was reached.

How do you get five associations to come to an agreement on an issue that dates back almost 100 years?

If you ask John Waldo, advocacy director and counsel for the Washington State Communication Access Project (Wash-CAP) and counsel for the Oregon Communication Access Project (OR-CAP), it’s a mix of happy coincidence and a genuine recognition of the other position’s side.

Waldo was a catalyst of the latest round of negotiations between a handful of advocacy groups representing the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities and movie theater owners over the issue of closed captioning.

It started after the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) proposed a rule change in 2012 to the Americans with Disabilities Act that would require a consistent nationwide standard for closed captioning and audio description in movie theaters. Waldo, who had already been working on captioning access with theaters in Washington state and was familiar with the potential compromise that could be made, decided the time was right to bring both sides to the table again to come up with a joint response.

But we knew that was the right thing to do—to reach an agreement and to serve our deaf and hard‑of‑hearing patrons.

“At that point, I said how about taking the next step and getting in touch with the theater owners and seeing if there are areas of agreement that we can come to,” Waldo said. So, in late August he reached out to John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), and proposed a meeting with leaders from the Alexander Graham Bell Association (AG Bell), the Association of Late-Deafened Adults, the Hearing Loss Association of America, and the National Association of the Deaf.

The groups eventually landed on an agreement and submitted their response that would provide captioning in 100 percent of U.S. theaters with a less rigid approach than the DOJ had proposed to the number of captioning devices theaters should have on hand.

Getting down to the root issue—greater accessibility without imposing undue financial strain—was one of the major influences in reaching the agreement, Waldo said. “The key to it was just to recognize what is our real interest, what is their real interest. To recognize the legitimacy of each other’s interests and see how best we can put those two together.”

It was also a matter of good timing. “We had a happy coincidence at this point that we had technological certainty [around closed captioning devices],” Waldo said. “We also had the rule, and we had motivation on everybody’s side to make it work.”

But there were a couple of other variables that played a part in the process, including the paradox that being adversaries for so long actually helped the cause. Each side was well aware of what the other party wanted.

“Sometimes—not always, but sometimes—being adversaries can be productive,” said John Stanton, volunteer chair of the AG Bell public affairs council. “We had almost a decade of an adversarial process, so by the time we got to the DOJ’s proposed rulemaking, we knew exactly where the other side stood, and I think that made reaching an agreement a lot easier.”

Another factor was keeping members of the different groups aware of the developing agreement and helping them to see the value in compromise.

“I know I’ve got members that didn’t want us to agree to 100 percent of the theaters in this country providing captioning because they didn’t think that was necessary,” Fithian said. “But we knew that was the right thing to do—to reach an agreement and to serve our deaf and hard‑of‑hearing patrons.”

NATO engaged its members throughout the process, Fithian added. A group of representatives came to all of the meetings and reviewed the various drafts of the agreement. The association also held a full membership meeting to present what was being worked on and take comments from members, and its board and membership voted on the basic principles of the agreement before it was finalized.

“You have to find middle ground, and you have to lead within your own constituencies to have people understand, no side is ever going to get everything they want,” Fithian said. “But what we got was the best possible outcome.”

How has your association worked with other organizations to reach a mutually beneficial agreement? Let us know in the comments.


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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