By David H. Kirkwood
It may not be quite a Hollywood ending, but it seems that better times are on the horizon for movie lovers whose hearing loss has prevented them from pursuing their passion. I certainly hope so. As someone who shares their passion for movies, I can empathize with the disappointment and frustration that deaf and hard-of-hearing cinephiles have endured since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
To be sure, that much-heralded law has achieved a lot. But, while it was supposed to ensure effective access for hearing-impaired people to their local movie house, it largely failed to do so. Here’s what happened.
In 1991, when the Department of Justice published a final rule implementing Title III of the ADA, it officially prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodation, including movie theaters. The department’s regulations specifically listed open and closed captioning as effective methods for making movies available to individuals with hearing impairments.
However, the law and the related regulations did not specifically require movie theaters to provide captioning, either open or closed. As a result, most theaters chose not to offer captioned movies. Those that did show them tended to do so only occasionally. That meant that the chances of finding a captioned movie that you wanted to see at a time and place that were convenient were slim.
Theater owners had various reasons for opting not to accommodate prospective customers with hearing loss. The equipment was expensive and they had no idea if it would attract enough additional patrons to offset the cost. Plus, they were concerned that if they used open captions that appeared on the screen, people who didn’t need them would find them annoying. The bottom line was that, despite the ADA, Americans with hearing loss had extremely limited access to one of the most popular types of entertainment.
TURNING UP THE PRESSURE
In 2010, spurred on by advocacy groups of and for the hard of hearing, federal and state government started to pay attention to this failure of the ADA. In July of that year, the U.S. Department of Justice issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would require half of all movie screens in the country to start showing captioned films within five years.
Also, advocacy groups began bringing lawsuits under the ADA to require theaters to accommodate people with hearing loss. For example, in November 2010, a class action was filed against Cinemark Theaters claiming that by failing to provide closed captioning, the company was engaging in discriminatory activity that violated both California laws and the federal ADA.
In Illinois, the attorney general’s office responded to complaints from the group Equip for Equality by putting pressure on AMC, that state’s largest movie chain. Two years later, in April 2012, AMC agreed to install closed captioning in all 246 of its theaters in the state.
PROGRESS ON THE TECHNOLOGICAL FRONT
Not all the good news has come out of legislatures and courtrooms. In the past 20 years, we’ve seen a variety of new technologies emerge to make movies accessible to those who don’t hear well.
One technology, which my colleague Gael Hannan has blogged about, is Rear Window Captioning. With RWC, captions under the projection window in the back of the theater are reflected on a plastic screen that fits into the moviegoer’s cup holder.
The CaptiView system includes a handset device, the CaptiView, that displays the captions. That device is attached to a bendable support arm that fits in the theater seat cupholder. It can be adjusted so that it’s easy for the viewer to see the movie screen and the CaptiView at the same time.
Just last week, I learned about a new technology made by Sony Electronics that sounds as if it may be the best thing yet. Not everyone I’ve talked to who has tried it agrees, but it is definitely getting a lot of praise. The user is given a pair of light-weight (3 ounces) glasses, somewhat similar in appearance to 3D glasses, and a receiving device that can be attached to a shirt or sweater When the user puts the Entertainment Access Glasses on, he sees the captions on the glasses. Since they are in the viewers’ line of sight as they look at the screen, they don’t have to look away from the action on the screen to know what the actors are saying.
A great value added is that when paired with headphones Access Glasses can provide a descriptive audio track for moviegoers with impaired vision.
Regal Cinemas, the country’s largest chain of movie houses has begun offering Access Glasses in its Knoxville, Seattle, and Fresno, CA, theaters. Regal, which has over 500 locations in the U.S., plans to have the systems available in all its fully digitized theaters by the first quarter of 2013.
IT HAS TO MAKE SENSE FOR THE THEATERS
No matter how well the various captioning systems work, if they don’t benefit the movie theaters, there will be a constant struggle to keep movies accessible to people with hearing loss. That’s why it’s important for all of us who are in contact with hard-of-hearing people to increase awareness of the availability of accessible theaters. If too few people take advantage of the systems, they won’t generate enough additional revenue to cover their costs to the theaters.
Advocacy groups, such as the Hearing Loss Association of America with its nationwide network of local chapters, already publicize facilities that are accessible to the hard-of-hearing in their community. So should audiologists, hearing instrument specialist, and anyone else who sees a lot of people with hearing problems. The theaters should also to make sure to include a phrase or logo in their marketing to alert the public to the availability of captioning.
Finally, those who have given up on going to the movies because of their hearing loss should give one of these systems a try. If not enough people do, I fear that the old shibboleth “Use it or lose it” will be proven true.