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Press Release:

MOPIX in the News

Devices Make Theaters Accessible to Blind and Deaf

Wall Street Journal
September 18, 2000

ATLANTA (AP) Connie Stratigos' passion for movies blossomed when she worked at her father's theater in Memphis, Tenn., in the1940s as "box office girl, popcorn girl, candy girl, ticket-taker and usher."

But her fondness for the big screen faded when health problems caused her to lose most of her hearing more than 30 years ago.

Relatively new technology called rear-window captioning is changing that, helping people with hearing or vision problems enjoy movies on the big screen without changing the way others see the films.

The technology, which involves detailed descriptions for the visually impaired and a personal captioning device for those with hearing problems, has been installed in movie theaters in about a dozen cities, including Baltimore, Chicago, Seattle and Boston. Parkway Pointe, a General Cinema theater just north of Atlanta, installed the technology last year, making it the only conventional theater in the Southeast that uses the equipment.

Screen Savior

For the price of admission, people with hearing problems get a smoked Plexiglas panel attached to a gooseneck arm that fits into the cupholder. That panel reflects red-lettered subtitles, which are projected in mirror reverse from the back of the theater.

The technology was developed by the National Center for Accessible Media, a joint effort of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Boston public television station WGBH, which is spearheading efforts to make movie theaters accessible to the nation's 34 million deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind and visually impaired movie fans.

Stratigos' first movie was "8MM," a violent film -- not the kind she usually goes for -- but she was happy just to be back in front of the big screen. "Wow, we were just really overwhelmed," said Stratigos, 66.

"At first we had a hard time adjusting the gooseneck panel, but once we got it squared away, it was no problem at all. I love it."

Regular Access is Goal

 At Parkway Pointe, the featured film changes about every month. The theater has already shown "28 Days," "The Green Mile," "Random Hearts," "Star Wars" and most recently, "The Patriot" starring Mel Gibson.

The goal of the National Center for Accessible Media, however, is to offer visually and hearing-impaired movie fans the choice to see a movie at any time, instead of specific viewing times.

Already, "Charlie's Angels" and "102 Dalmatians" are expected to feature rear-window captioning when those films are released in the fall.

Rear-window captions display almost every word of dialogue in "The Patriot," including certain sound effects, such as groans and horse whinnies.

Blind moviegoers get a special headset to listen to a description of the visual elements of a film. The fast-paced narrative, called DVS Theatrical, works in tandem with the dialogue, sneaking into the movie's natural pauses. During the final battle scene in "The Patriot," the narrator says, "Martin parries, then takes a hit in the back of the knee Martin falls to his knees, his face contorted with pain."

Demanding More

It costs a theater about $15,000 to install the equipment for rear-window captioning and descriptive narration in a single auditorium. It costs WGBH another $2,000 to caption and $8,500 to describe a two-hour film.

General Cinema, a subsidiary of Massachusetts-based GC Companies, has been the only theater chain thus far to test the equipment.

But some activists are pressuring other national theater chains to use the technology. Eight people with hearing impairments filed suit in Oregon earlier this year to force several movie theater chains to install rear-window captioning, citing the Americans with Disabilities Act.

And the Federal Communications Commission in November offered proposals on how to mandate video description services for television programming. The proposals are part of a broader FCC effort to make technology more reachable for people with disabilities.

Cheryl Mauldin, facilities manager for Parkway Pointe, said General Cinema installed the system in Atlanta not because it's a moneymaker, but because it is "the right thing to do."

Outreach Effort

Only a handful of people use the equipment regularly, but Parkway Pointe is trying to increase that number by sending out e-mail notices to a database of blind and deaf people every time a new movie is released, Mauldin said.

Some advocates for the deaf and hard-of-hearing have criticized the rear-window captioning system as hard to use. "I don't think I've seen a movie in years," said Jennifer Whitcomb, executive director of the Georgia Council for the Hearing Impaired. "I tend to stay away from them because I don't want to deal with the captioning. I think it takes the fun out of it when we have to deal with that kind of stuff."

But Stratigos, a retired microbiologist who serves as an officer in hearing support groups, said there is no other way for the blind and hearing-impaired to be able to enjoy first-run movies the way they were meant to be enjoyed on the silver screen.

"People like me are thankful to get what we can get," she said.

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