Deaf, blind promised a better film experience

Theater chains add captions, narration

New technology allows the deaf to read captions projected onto a reflecting device they can screw into a cup holder. New technology allows the deaf to read captions projected onto a reflecting device they can screw into a cup holder. (Wgbh)

Josh Pearson, who has been blind since shortly after he was born, has always loved going to the movies

The 18-year-old from Barre appreciates the sound and how the play of light sparks his imagination. He usually goes to movies with sighted friends, who whisper plot details in his ear, but that has its cons.

“There have been too many times where people say at the end of the movie that I ruined it for them,’’ he says. “It can be an unpleasant experience.’’

Now, however, Pearson and thousands of other blind and deaf residents of Massachusetts will have more opportunity to experience movies independently, in a way closer to that enjoyed by those without disabilities.

After more than six months of negotiating with national movie theater companies, Attorney General Martha Coakley announced yesterday that three of the state’s largest chains agreed to increase the number of theaters equipped with devices that help the deaf and the blind enjoy movies.

In a settlement to avoid a lawsuit, Regal Entertainment Group, National Amusements, and American Multi-Cinema, or AMC, promised that over the next three months they will increase the number of accessible theaters to 34 across the state and that the number of auditoriums featuring films in those theaters would increase from 14 to 63, ensuring that 15 percent of all auditoriums in the state will have equipment that projects text, including captions, onscreen for the deaf and provides narration for the blind.

In Boston, the AMC Loews theater off Boston Common and the Regal theater in the Fenway will have three accessible auditoriums each. In Cambridge, the AMC theater in Harvard Square will have two, while the AMC theater in Chestnut Hill will have one. Theaters in Dedham, Revere, and Swansea will have one accessible auditorium.

Massachusetts is the third state to reach such an agreement with major theater chains. In 2004, New Jersey’s attorney general reached an agreement that requires 10 percent of the state’s auditoriums to be accessible to the deaf and blind. A year later, New York’s attorney general prodded the chains to make 3 percent of the state’s auditoriums accessible.

In Arizona, the attorney general sued Harkins Theatres several years ago in federal court, contending that the lack of accessibility violated the American with Disabilities Act, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this week. In June, a federal appeals court ruled that Harkins had to provide captioning and description equipment.

“Movies are a significant part of our social and cultural fabric, and these settlements help ensure that the hearing and visually impaired have meaningful access to them,’’ Coakley said yesterday at WGBH studios in Brighton, which has a theater equipped with the new technology.

Officials from the three theater companies did not respond to requests for comment.

The new technology allows the deaf to read captions, featuring the movie’s dialogue and explanations about the music and sound effects, projected from the back of the auditorium onto a reflecting device they can screw into the cup holder on their chair.

The description technology for the blind provides a professionally delivered narration of the movie, which offers cues for setting, action, and scene changes, like the script of a play, sent to headphones.

About 400 theaters in the United States and Canada have such technology, said Larry Goldberg, director of the media access group at WGBH, which has spent years honing the technology.

Advocates for the blind and deaf said they hope that the settlement will lead to even more accessible theaters — the agreement only requires the technology in 34 theaters statewide — and that movie companies will produce DVDs with such features for the blind.

“I am pleased that this settlement finally guarantees meaningful access to these movie theaters,’’ said Janet LaBreck, commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. “As an individual who is blind, I look forward to taking advantage of this new assistive technology that dramatically enhances the movie-going experience.’’

Ginny Mazur, who serves on the state’s Advisory Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, welcomed the agreement.

“This opens up the world for us,’’ said Mazur, who has been hard of hearing for 25 years and usually sees foreign films because she knows there will be captions. “This will hopefully bring a lot of us back to the theater and allow us to stay current with the culture.’’

The agreement requires theaters with 10 or more screens to have at least two accessible auditoriums, one of which has to be the theater’s largest auditorium, to ensure that the deaf and blind have access to the latest movies.

The chains also agreed to install the technology in all newly built theaters, promised to provide more than 200 free movie passes to the Commission for the Blind and the Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and sponsor community awareness events to promote the changes.

For Pearson, who will attend the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the fall as a freshman, a theater within a half hour of campus will now have the description technology.

He expects to be able to take a bus there on his own and go to the movies whenever he wants, without having to rely on a sighted friend or bothering others in the theater.

“This really allows me to be independent, to be a normal 18-year-old kid and go to the movies when I want,’’ he said. “That’s a big deal.’’

David Abel can be reached at .

© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.

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