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To see and enjoy a film in a movie theater as a deaf or hard-of-hearing person, you have two options.
You could use a closed captioning device—a personal device that displays captions for only you to see. But those devices sometimes present a number of challenges. Say you request use of a closed captioning device at your theater: You may get a clunky pair of glasses that aren’t particularly comfortable, especially if you already wear prescription glasses; or you could use a cup holder-mounted device that requires you to shift your eyes back-and-forth between the big screen and said device.
These devices come with a set of “what-if” problems: What if the theater’s closed captioning system isn’t working? What if your device’s batteries are dead, or quickly dying? What if your device is not functioning properly? You then have to get up, interrupt your moviegoing experience, and try to find an employee who can help you acquire a working device. Your problem may or may not be solved, and by then, there’s a good chance you’ve missed a significant chunk of a movie you paid to see.
Or, a closed captioning device might not even be an option for you at all because it gives you migraines or vertigo.
All of these “what ifs” are a frequent reality for deaf and hard-of-hearing moviegoers who have grown weary of closed captioning devices. But there is the second option: open captions.
With open captions, movie theaters simply display words and sound cues on the screen. For many moviegoers in the D.C. area who rely on or prefer open caption screenings, the frequency of these screenings is few and far between. And, depending on where you live, open caption screenings may not be an option at all.
For a long time, Erik Nordlof, a movie lover who is deaf, struggled to find open caption screenings, especially once theater chains started carrying closed captioning devices. So, in 2015, he started a group with other deaf and hard-of-hearing film fans to organize more open caption screenings at area movie theaters.
“I’ve been around deaf and hard-of-hearing people of different backgrounds all my life, and part of the reason I pursue captioning accessibility is because it is something that benefits the whole community,” he tells City Paper.
Since it launched, Nordlof’s group, DC Deaf Moviegoers, has amassed a significant following. It has 2,336 members in its Facebook group, a mailing list of 1,052 subscribers, and organizes two to three open caption screenings per week in D.C.
But recently, Nordlof and the DC Deaf Moviegoers have run into a new problem: There just aren’t enough open caption screenings in D.C. to accommodate the demand for them. So, they’ve taken up their case with the D.C. Council, hoping that it will pass legislation requiring area movie theaters to host more open caption screenings.
The silent film era was the last respite for the deaf and hard-of-hearing moviegoing audience. It was the last time there was truly equal access at the theater for both the hearing and the deaf and hard-of-hearing public. It began in the late 1800s, and when it ended around the 1920s—when “talking pictures” were popularized—“deaf and hard-of-hearing moviegoers had no access at the movie theaters for decades after that,” Nordlof says.
Open captions are considered more accessible and the best practice for a number of reasons. The open caption advocacy group Open Captions Australia precisely lays out why that is: There’s the ease of viewing, not just for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, but people with other disabilities—like autism and auditory processing disorders—as well as senior citizens, veterans with severe tinnitus, children learning to read, and people for whom English is a second language.
In 2015, Hawaii became the only state in the country to pass legislation requiring its theaters to host open caption screenings. The law required theaters with more than two locations to provide at least two open caption showings per week of each film. Since then, however, the law has weakened and theaters are now only required to show one open caption screening per week, or offer closed captioning devices.
Howard A. Rosenblum, the CEO and director of legal services for the Silver Spring-based National Association of the Deaf, says that while the Department of Justice mandated improvements in closed captioning, that technology is still not satisfactory for many deaf and hard-of-hearing people.
“All existing forms of closed captioning have been problematic in different ways,” says Rosenblum. Those problems include an inadequate number of devices at a theater, devices breaking down, batteries dying, and words displayed out of sync with the movie.
Nordlof and the DC Deaf Moviegoers are hoping that D.C. will soon join Hawaii and pass open caption legislation. Many people “have gone to the movies less often or stopped entirely because of the inaccessibility of the closed captioning devices,” he says. “Movie theaters are simply not giving deaf and hard-of-hearing moviegoers the access they need. They are breaking the law in continuing to provide problematic CC devices.”
D.C. is uniquely situated to adapt to the needs of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community because of the presence of Gallaudet University, the transformative institution designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
“Gallaudet has the largest concentration of deaf and hard-of-hearing people in a single location in the world,” says Fred Weiner, the director of real estate foundation and D.C. government relations at Gallaudet. The school has close to 2,000 students annually and about 500 full-time employees. Plus, there are many Gallaudet alumni in the area, and a large contingent of deaf or hard-of-hearing federal government workers (the federal government, Weiner says, is the largest employer of deaf and hard-of-hearing people).
Inspired by Hawaii’s legislation, Nordlof met with Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen with the idea to introduce a similar bill in D.C.
“Being a hearing person, I had no idea of the contraptions and devices that have to be carried and how they don’t really work and how many problems my own neighbors are facing,” Allen says.
In September of last year, Allen, along with Councilmembers Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), David Grosso (At-Large), and Anita Bonds (At-Large) introduced the Open Movie Captioning Requirement Act of 2018. The bill would require any movie theater with more than three screens to provide at least four open caption screenings a week of every movie they’re showing. At least two of those screenings, the bill says, would have to be shown during peak hours (anytime after 6 p.m. on Fridays and after noon on Saturdays and Sundays). Additionally, any theater with two or three screens would be required to show open caption screenings twice a week, and theaters with just one screen would be required to host an open caption screening monthly.
But the bill died in the final days of last year. It was introduced too late in the legislative calendar to be passed before 2019. Allen’s office is hoping to reintroduce the bill next month, with some tweaks based on testimony and feedback from a public hearing in December.
Even as the future of the bill is in limbo, Nordlof’s advocacy on this issue is inspiring others around the country to fight for caption access. John Quinney, a member of the Vermont chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America, is now pursuing open captions at his local theaters. “DC Deaf Moviegoers has really helped give me a sense of what’s possible,” he says.
Allen’s bill amassed a long list of supporters, from Gallaudet to the National Association of the Deaf to the DC Language Access Coalition, but some were not in favor. Chief among the opposition: movie theater owners.
Esther Baruh, the director of government relations for the National Association of Theatre Owners, testified at the hearing that “the general moviegoing public really just doesn’t love going to shows that have open captions.”
Though NATO members insisted at the hearing that they want access for deaf patrons and want their patronage, they also said that closed captioning devices were the best way to address their needs.
“Our data suggests that thousands and thousands and thousands of deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons are using and appreciating closed captioning systems in cinemas all across this country, and it’s an achievement that we are quite proud of,” NATO CEO John Fithian said during his testimony.
NATO did not respond to several requests for comment for this article.
During his testimony, ANC 6C06 Commissioner Robb Dooling, who is deaf, wore large closed captioning glasses to demonstrate just how “cumbersome and, frankly, dehumanizing” they can be. But Fithian insisted in his testimony that “the cleaver of a mandate means we’ll have a lot of empty auditoriums that will cost us a lot of money, and we want to find universal access a different way.”
At one point, Fithian suggested that NATO is working on new technology to stream holograms of people signing a movie to the seats of deaf patrons as they’re watching it.
Allen scoffs at this idea. “The thing around the devices is you’re having to constantly shift your eyes between the action on the screen and the words on the device,” Allen says. “Now imagine there’s a hologram. Just put the open captions on the screen.”
During the hearing, Allen says he observed a particularly pointed bit of irony. “There were these big screens in the hearing room that we had interpreters typing up everything that was being signed as well as being spoken, so that there was a full written transcription taking place in real time,” he says. “In essence, it was open captions of the hearing.”
He noticed that the people from the movie theater industry who were there to testify against the bill kept their eyes glued to a screen with no picture, only the words being spoken. As they sat waiting to speak in opposition to an open caption bill, they closely watched the open captions.