- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The D.C. Council plans to reintroduce legislation that would require movie theaters to provide more open caption screenings, after a Tuesday hearing in which dozens testified about frequent failures of captioning glasses.

Theater operators expressed worry about losing revenue with more captioned screenings, but lawmakers questioned their data and indicated renewed support for the Open Movie Captioning Requirement Act of 2018.

The council’s public hearing on Tuesday was aided by four American Sign Language interpreters and live captioning.

Every witness who was deaf and hard-of-hearing testified about how glasses that display captions stop working, run out of sync with a movie or are not available. Theaters provide the glasses in compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

“My first open-captioned movie when I first moved here to D.C. in the fall of 2016, I was able to follow the dialogue and I was able to fully enjoy the story instead of struggling to get all the different small details that I missed,” said Emily Fustos, an audiologist at Children’s National Medical Center.

Movie dialogue and voice-over appear on screen in open-caption presentations and can be seen by all viewers. Captioning glasses provide dialogue only for the wearer.

“I walked out a changed person,” Ms. Fustos said of the open-captioned screening. “I wanted that open-captioned movie experience to be my standard.”

John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, said he was “surprised” to hear the complaints “because our industry has a long, passionate record of working closely with advocates for the deaf and hard-of-hearing to provide universal access to movie theaters.”

Democratic council members Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), Charles Allen (Ward 6) and Anita Bonds (at-large), and independent member David Grosso (at-large) introduced the legislation in September. Because the council’s current session ends at the end of the year, it will have to be reintroduced next year.

The bill would require theaters with more than three screens to show each movie with open captions four times a week. Those with fewer screens would be required to show fewer captioned screenings.

There are 59 movie screens in the District, according to industry representatives who testified Tuesday. Theaters provide about 25 open caption screenings a month, and theaters are required to offer captioning aid technology for any non-captioned screenings.

Ester Baruh, director of government relations for the theater owners group, cited case studies in Hawaii and Rhode Island, where theaters reported that ticket sales “dropped significantly” as they experimented with regularly captioned screenings.

But Wendy Ting, regional director for the Association of Late-Deafened Adults, said theaters already lose money from moviegoers who are deaf and hard-of-hearing because they’re giving up on the industry due to issues with the glasses.

“Oftentimes many of us prefer to stay home and watch captioned moves on Netflix, Amazon, Redbox and other sources,” Ms. Ting said.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, said he was “not fully convinced” the data on declining ticket sales would apply to the District, which has a much larger population of deaf and hard-of-hearing residents. He said it was “useful” to hold a hearing to help revise the bill for next year’s legislative session.

“For most D.C. residents, going to the movies it’s not so easy. But for many of our deaf neighbors, it’s not easy. The method of obtaining captions is truly cumbersome,” Mr. Allen said.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Robb Dooling wore a mock pair of captioning glasses while he testified Tuesday.

“I’m wearing these example glasses now to prove my point that they’re cumbersome and, frankly, dehumanizing,” Mr. Dooling said.

Tracey Salaway, professor of art and media design at Gallaudet University, told The Washington Times that open captioning is about addressing the bigger issue of providing more opportunities for deaf people.

“We want to be part of the norm,” Ms. Salaway said. “That’s the whole concept.”

• Julia Airey can be reached at jairey@washingtontimes.com.

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