The 2012 Academy Award-winning silent film The Artist is about an unemployed silent film star unable to make the transition to talking movies.
When the silent movie era ended, so too did the moviegoing experience for individuals who are deaf and many of the hard of hearing.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires aids and services when they are necessary to ensure effective communication with individuals with hearing, vision, or speech impairments, unless it would result in an undue burden.
The Department of Justice announced in 2014 that it might propose new rules to explicitly require movie theaters with digital screens to exhibit movies with closed captioning and audio description by 2016.
Closed captioning refers to captions that only the patron requesting the closed captions can see, while audio description provides a spoken narration of key visual elements using a headset.
“We have a mixed bag when it comes to captioning in movie theaters, with the larger theaters such as Regal and Cinemark having captioning devices [in different styles],” said Nathan Gomme, the Executive Director of the New Mexico Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. “Some of the smaller chains, for the most part, do not have any such devices, and if they do, the staff sometimes have no idea where or how to use them.”
There are 261,257 individuals with some form of hearing loss, or 13 percent of the total population, living in New Mexico, according to the Commission’s website.
Randy Smith Jr., the chief administrative officer for Regal Cinemas, said on the National Public Radio show, All Things Considered, that having a son who is deaf strengthened his goal of finding “a technology that would allow accessibility to the deaf and blind for every show time, for every feature.”
Regal Cinemas is using one of these technologies — closed captioning glasses — at some its locations.
The captions are projected onto the glasses and appear to float about 10 feet in front of the user.
They also come with audio tracks that describe the action on the screen for the blind, and with adjustable audio levels for those who are hard of hearing.
Vincent Barrera, an access specialist with the New Mexico Governor’s Commission on Disabilities, said that Santa Fe’s newest theater, the Violet Crown, offers a closed captioning device that fits into the cup holder with a flexible arm.
Barrera said that headphones and FM loops are also available at theaters. These headsets allow patrons to amplify the sound to their needs and tie into their hearing aids.
But Barrera wasn’t sure that all Santa Fe theaters offer captioning devices, and not all movies made available by studios have captioning or audio descriptions.
The National Association for the Deaf advocates for more showings of captioned movies, yet only about 1% of all of the movies being shown in movie theaters today are shown with captions.
Charlotte Martinez, interim manager of The Screen at Santa Fe University of Art and Design, said, “The cinematheque is a little different because 90 percent are international films that are already programmed with English subtitles. If we ever have a U.S. film where patrons who are hard of hearing would like subtitles, we play the movie with English subtitles.”
Interestingly, the Santa Fe-based company Figaro Systems installed a subtitling system, in 1999, for the Santa Fe Opera, said Daniel R. Zillmann, director of media and public relations.
“One major thing to note is that we offer subtitles in not only English, but Spanish, as well, another positive accessibility feature,” said Zillman.
This month, the National Association for Deaf reached an agreement with Amazon to caption its entire online movie catalog.
The Association had previously reached a similar arrangement with Netflix, after suing the streaming video giant in federal court.
Andy Winnegar has spent his career in rehabilitation and is based in Santa Fe as a training associate for the Southwest ADA Center, 800-949-4232. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.