- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2000

Three hearing-impaired individuals Thursday filed a class-action lawsuit in the District of Columbia against AMC Entertainment and Loews Cineplex Entertainment, demanding better captioning of first-run movies.

The plaintiffs said the theaters are not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that public places have accommodations for the disabled. They called for either more widespread open captioning similar to subtitles or for new captioning devices for first-run movies.

Since there are 24 million hearing-impaired individuals nationwide, the suit could have an substantial effect on theaters.

Thursday's action followed a Portland, Ore., suit filed in February by eight hearing-impaired persons against Regal Cinemas, Century Theatres and Carmike Cinemas to force them to install rear-window captioning, a relatively new technology.

Kevin Ball, 33, a Reston, Va., resident and information specialist at the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, is one of the plaintiffs in the D.C. suit.

Mr. Ball has a 7-year-old son who likes to go to the movies, but Mr. Ball said his own enjoyment of films is limited.

"I can't lip-read cartoons," he said. His hope is "to go to a movie theater where I want, when I want, so me and my family can enjoy it."

Lip reading is nearly impossible even on live-action movies, said John Stanton, a Rockville, Md., lawyer also participating in the suit.

"I haven't been to a noncaptioned movie in 15 years," he said.

Deaf and hearing-impaired individuals have a few options when going to the movies. They can elect to go to theaters with open captioning white letters at the bottom of the screen that describe sounds as well as relay dialogue.

They can also take advantage of rear-window captioning, which will be installed in the Springfield, Va., Mall General Cinema in the next few weeks. The theater is one of a dozen theaters nationwide that has the system. Some IMAX theaters and those in Disney World and Disneyland also have rear-window captioning.

The captions are displayed on a small, Plexiglas screen on a moveable tube that can be attached to a deaf person's cup holder in the theater.

The technology was developed by WGBH Educational Foundation in Boston. The nonprofit runs public television and radio stations, and organized the National Center for Accessible Media, which has created media technology for both the blind and deaf.

The Public Broadcasting System, for which WGBH provides about one-third of total programming, pioneered television captioning in the 1970s. But hearing individuals, and networks using the technology, complained that their viewing experience was hurt.

So PBS created closed-captioning, which is standard on TV sets today. The development of rear-windowing captioning followed in the mid-1990s.

"The impetus came from consumers asking, 'Why can't we have access to movie theaters?' " like access to TV, said Mary Watkins, outreach manager of the media-access group at WGBH.

When the ADA was passed in 1990, movie theaters successfully lobbied to be exempt because of inadequate captioning technology, said D.C. lawyer Wayne R. Cohen, who is representing the plaintiffs in the case. Now that the technology is available, theaters need to make captioning more accessible to the deaf, he said.

The plaintiffs are not seeking monetary compensation. They want theaters to either install rear-window technology or have more open-caption films showing more frequently in more theaters.

But Nanci Linke-Ellis, executive director of Tripod Caption Films in Burbank, Calif., said better access to movie captioning is just a matter of time.

Her nonprofit organization, an outreach program of a nonprofit education foundation for the deaf, is the sole distributor for open-captioned films. Tripod released 30 such movies last year, cooperating with 10 studios and 25 theater chains.

Loews and AMC participate in the Tripod program. Loews shows open-captioned films at the Foundry in Georgetown, and at Wheaton Plaza and White Marsh, Md. However, AMC spokeswoman Brenda Nolte said none of her company's theaters are currently showing open-captioned films in the Washington area, though they have before and plan to do so again.

She would not comment directly on the suit, since her company has not yet received a copy. Loews did not return a call seeking comment.

Ms. Linke-Ellis, who is deaf, said it is a challenge to get the word out to the deaf community about captioning of any kind.

"One of our biggest problems is the general awareness of it hearing loss means an obstacle in communication," she said.

For example, deaf people don't read movie listings which may tell which theaters are captioned because they don't know about the service, Ms. Linke-Ellis said.

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