A group of deaf and hard-of-hearing cinema buffs have been pushing for legislation that would require movie theaters in the District to play a certain number of films weekly with open captions.
However, they’re not enthused by an announcement from the National Association of Theatre Owners would be expanding open caption showtimes in D.C. throughout the summer as part of a pilot program that began on Friday. NATO contends that the pilot program, which includes seven local movie theaters, is designed to get hard numbers about whether there’s a market for open caption screenings in the District.
But members of DC Deaf Moviegoers believe that the organization is trying to create data to indicate that open captioning is unpopular to stymie the bill, and they have questions about how the industry association is collecting its information and scheduling the showings in question.
The District is home to about 7,094 adults with some type of hearing disability, according to Gallaudet University.
Under the American Disabilities Act, movie theaters have to provide accommodations for deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons. The most popular way for theaters to do that is through closed-captioning devices that show captions only to an individual, like captioning glasses or displays placed on armrests. Those devices are often plagued with issues.
“It is a problem that continues to fester,” Erik Nordlof, the lead organizer of DC Deaf Moviegoers, tells DCist over email. “And it festers more because many deaf moviegoers have given up on going to the movies due to the device problems.”
Nordlof says a far preferable alternative is open captioning, which displays captions on the screen for all movie-goers, including dialogue, sound effects, and music. Currently, it’s up to movie theaters to decide if and when they’ll screen a film with open captions.
But Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen proposed legislation last September to compel theaters to regularly schedule movies with open captions, including some showings at night and on the weekend.
Allen called NATO’s pilot program “a step in the right direction” in a Facebook video on Friday.
“I hope that it proves to be a good first step for our deaf and hard-of-hearing neighbors,” Allen said. “But it does fall short of what my legislation would require.” He said he was still working towards passing the “Open Movie Captioning Requirement Act,” which he re-introduced in February.
Nordlof was less diplomatic in his reaction to the pilot program. “We are concerned that NATO will use inconveniently placed screenings to claim that nobody shows up to them,” he tells DCist over email. “For example, Regal Gallery Place has multiple [open caption] screenings on mid-week afternoons despite deaf moviegoers’ preference for weekend afternoon/evening and weeknight times.”
Patrick Corcoran, NATO’s vice president and chief communications officer, says that “there’s going to be a range of show times to get a sense of where the market for that is … There isn’t a lot of solid data. There’s a lot of anecdotes and strong feelings.”
He declined to say whether NATO was in favor of the open-captioning legislation. “We generally are in favor of letting the market decide,” he tells DCist, noting that “one of the concerns with open captioning [is] it affects people who are not deaf or hard-of-hearing.” (At the bill’s hearing in December, a NATO representative said that “the general moviegoing public really just doesn’t love going to shows that have open captions.”)
Corcoran says that NATO has been a strong proponent of closed captioning devices, and worked with deaf advocacy groups to increase access to theaters. When asked about the characterization of these devices as faulty, he says that “one of the reasons the equipment doesn’t work is because it doesn’t get used, which indicates there isn’t much of a market.”
But Nordlof believes the Corcoran has it backwards: “One can only experience these problems [with closed captioning devices] so many times before giving up on the movie-going experience,” he says. “Businesses will never be trailblazers when it comes to accessibility legislation, and that is unfortunately evident here.”