AG Bell Heroes Take on Hollywood

 Speaking from the Volta Bureau Autumn banner

Emilio Alonso-Mendoza summerDear Alexander Graham Bell Community,

It's always inspiring to see leadership in action, to celebrate the causes that people take on for the benefit of others. This week, I would like to share the story of one of our association's most honored members and bring you up to date on his recent work. John Stanton has earned many accolades from our community for his advocacy efforts. He received the Honors of the Alexander Graham Bell Association in 2014, and has served as chair of the AG Bell Public Affairs Council, guiding the organization's direction in public policy work. John is a deaf lawyer who has broken the sound barrier in fighting for equal access by contributing his time and talents to AG Bell. He is an individual with a deep passion for making the world a better place for people who are deaf and hard of hearing.

John has been the driving force behind a class action lawsuit by AG Bell members and other deaf individuals to get Hollywood studios and Netflix to caption song lyrics. Although movies like Captain America, X-Men, Selma, Skyfall, House of Cards, and The Godfather are advertised as fully captioned, many times there are no captions for the song lyrics in these movies. As a result, a class action lawsuit was filed against eight major motion picture and television studios.

"The studios believe that copyright law prohibits them from captioning song lyrics in movies and television shows. That is just flat-out wrong," John says. "The courts have made clear that reproducing otherwise copyrighted material for the purpose of making the material accessible to people with disabilities is not a violation of the federal Copyright Act." 

John Stanton

John says that the primary goal for this suit is to force studios to reevaluate their practices and either start captioning song lyrics or at least make clear to viewers who are deaf and hard of hearing that the songs in their media are not captioned.

John's quest for captioning began in high school during the 1980s. He had a biology teacher, Dr. Peet, who took the time to find videos for his class that were captioned to make sure John could benefit from the lessons in those videos. For John, this act of kindness was revolutionary. For the first time, he actually understood what was being said in the videos. Now, education and public access laws provide captioning for educational videos and have paved the way for increasing captioning in the classroom. John's work has played a pivotal role in making this happen.

After earning his undergraduate degree at Dartmouth College, John received a law degree at Georgetown Law Center. In the ensuing years, he established a long track record of fighting for captioning access for deaf and hard of hearing people. He was a force behind two major court cases that helped students gain access to computer-assisted realtime transcription (CART) at the high school and postsecondary level.

John also played a major role in the battle with major movie theater chains to gain improved access to captioning. He was a central figure in negotiating a landmark agreement among organizations representing consumers with hearing loss and the movie theater corporations to ensure that movies install closed captioning devices and have on hand enough to meet consumer demand.

Pauline Newton with one of her children

For people who are deaf and hard of hearing and rely on captioning, complete captioning of movies is essential. Eight plaintiffs - Christine Anthony, Susan Boswell, Evan Brunell, Darby Leigh, Ken Levinson, Catharine McNally, Pauline Newton and Jay Wyant - have stepped forward on behalf of the association to advance the issue. I salute their initiative - their suit identifies a fundamental failure to provide access that must be remedied. Could you imagine watching Back to the Future without "Johnny B. Goode," or The Graduate without "The Sound of Silence"? The plaintiffs argue that captioning songs like "The Sound of Silence" is important, as it communicates with the audience in a critical way that enhances enjoyment of the movie. Without captioning, those who are deaf and hard of hearing miss out on a fundamental part of the dramatic experience of iconic movies like Back to the Future and The Graduate. 

"By not having song lyrics captioned, I am not receiving a complete understanding of the show or movie that the writer, director, and producer of the film intended to be communicated," said Evan Brunell, president of the AG Bell Massachusetts Chapter. "This suit is important as it has been shown in the past that it is very difficult to get the entertainment industry to provide equal access."

Ken Levinson

As a parent of three, Pauline Newton said that missing out on song lyric captioning means not being able to sing songs with her children. "My kids will often start singing a song and I find out that this was a song from the movie we saw. They get all excited and say 'Mom sing with us!' I have to go online and look up the song and its lyrics." 

Ken Levinson, founder of the AG Bell Leadership Opportunities for Teens (LOFT) program, summed it up by saying that song lyric captioning affects the life experiences of people who are deaf and hard of hearing. "Music is an important fabric of our cultural and social development, but most importantly, the lyrics are the part of that fabric that allows us to fully participate in the sharing and telling of stories and meanings reflected by the music." 

I hope that in the future, children and teens who are deaf and hard of hearing will have full and equal access to movies and TV which are part of the mainstream popular culture. I wish to extend a personal thank you to everyone who is involved in this case for their advocacy and for stepping forward. When you support AG Bell, you are making a concrete contribution to improving the quality of life for people who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Until next week,


Emilio Alonso-Mendoza
[email protected]


The time is always right to do what is right.
- Martin Luther King, Jr.