Accessibility for Movie Theaters in the 21st Century

The author of this article is Deaf and Hard of Hearing and so that is where we will start. Deaf and Hard of Hearing people have had a problematic experience with cinema since the beginning of the talkies; film with sound in the early 20th century. The perception of moving images that tell a story with no accompanying text and no sound provides an enjoyable experience, but aside from rare avant garde films that are what the laymen call arty films; most films are usually accompanied by text or sound or both.

Beginning in the late 19th century with the introduction of moving image photography, films were enjoyed by everyone including Deaf and Hard of Hearing people. In the early years films were silent; they had no sound and instead the story was told through moving images where the picture was momentarily replaced by an image of text explaining the story. With the introduction of the film “The Jazz Singer” in October 1927, talkies; as sound films were known then, Deaf and Hard of Hearing people lost their access to cinema.

It took many decades before films would be distributed with captions. Even in the latter half of the 20th century (1960-1999) and the early 21st century (2000-2010) most screenings of a film did not have captions. Film goers in small towns were completely out of luck when it came to captions.

With the start of the second decade of the 21st century, films were beginning to be shown with digital projection. Digital film making, editing, distribution and projection have revolutionized the captioning system because captioning a film is now a trivial action and films can now be distributed with captions as an option that can be activated on a per person basis.

However, not all digital caption systems are created equal. There are three main types of caption systems;

  1. Open caption, where the film is displayed with subtitles on the screen that everyone can see, it’s like how a movie on DVD works. The captions are in most instances displayed at the bottom of the screen and centered
  2. Standalone caption displays. These work as a device that is self-contained and usually sit in a cup holder or attach to the seat some other way. The device has a small display that displays captions. You have to move your head back and forth between the device and the screen. Other movie patrons can see the captions.
  3. Glasses. The third type involves wearing glasses that are similar to wearing 3D glasses. The glasses have two small video displays one for each eye. The glasses project the captions out to a user adjustable distance, usually ten feet to fifty feet. Wherever you look the captions are there. The captions are not visible to other patrons.

For me and most other Deaf and Hard of Hearing people, the preferred method for captions is open captions. The reason is that the captions involve no equipment that may or may not work and also the fact that the captions have been preselected for best placement on the screen and since the captions are actually located on the screen it is compatible with prescription eye wear and results in no eyestrain.

The captions that rely on an external display device are the least desired. Having captions on an external display device requires you to move your head back and forth from the caption display device and the movie screen making it very hard to sync the captions to the screen.

The best caption technology to use if you don’t have access to open captions is glasses that display the captions right in the glasses. Glasses allow the caption to be overlaid on the screen. The downside to the glasses is that the captions have not been preselected for best placement on the screen and since the captions move with your head it means that sometimes the captions will obscure important parts of the image. The author of the article has tried the glasses and I must say they felt a bit heavy and made my nose sore. I do wear prescription glasses and I was wearing the caption glasses over my eye wear. The glasses are quite bulky. There may be some trepidation by some Deaf and Hard of Hearing people who are self-conscious to be the only ones in the theater wearing bulky glasses.

The author feels strongly that open captions are the way to go. Every theater should have dedicated screenings of films that use open captions. The glasses should only be used as a last resort. The external caption display devices should never be used and are worse than having no captions.