Movie Theaters Becoming Inclusive

When I was growing up, I had only one friend who was blind. Gayle lived across town and went to a different school, but we had far more in common than limited visual acuity, being more or less typic

Jun 21, 2006 at 2:06 pm

When I was growing up, I had only one friend who was blind. Gayle lived across town and went to a different school, but we had far more in common than limited visual acuity, being more or less typical, bright, energetic teenaged girls who loved to talk about clothes and boys and music and books and movies and friends.

Mostly, though, we were "phone friends," only actually getting together a few times a year when one set of parents or the other would drive one of us the 20-minute distance that used to seem like a big deal.

It was on one of our rare sleepover occasions that I remember thinking for possibly the first time that being blind could really suck. Well, OK, I don't think we said "suck" then, but I realized it could be a definite disadvantage.

It was well past midnight, and all the other people in Gayle's house had gone to sleep. We'd had the popcorn, the lemonade, probably played cards, played records, talked and giggled our little hearts out. We decided to watch a movie. In those days, that meant turning the TV on, flipping channels and hoping that there might be something interesting playing on one of the four or five available stations.

We were in luck.

The movie had already begun, so we didn't know the name, but it hooked us right away — romance, patriotism, wartime, intrigue, incredible characters. I was lying on the floor, Gayle on the couch, and the low hum of the fan near the open screen door and murmur of summer insects played calming backbeat as we were drawn into the movie.

The time was World War II. A man and woman who had once been in love had a chance meeting in his French Moroccan café. We couldn't see the screen, but you didn't need to in those days. The acting and music conveyed enough of the scenery with them that we were as enthralled as any two teenagers might have been.

But then the ending of the movie came. The ill-fated couple is at the airport, saying goodbye. Would she really get on the plane and leave with her husband or stay behind with Rick, the irresistible hero?

The music played. But there were no spoken lines to clue us in! Was she getting on the plane or not?

"What happened?" we demanded of one another simultaneously. And then, as the reality struck, we each realized that neither one of us could interpret the visual image for the other.

"Ohhhhhh nooooo!" we wailed in mock agony, followed by Gayle's infectious laughter.

It was funny — that time. But as the years went by and Hollywood became more technologized, movies and TV programs grew harder and harder to follow without sight.

In the mid-1980s, a number of theaters around the country began providing audio description for some live performances. Through an FM or infrared transmitter, a trained narrator speaks quietly into a microphone, describing the strictly visual elements of a theater production, ballet or concert, heard only by those in the audience who have donned the corresponding FM or infrared headsets.

For theatergoers who are blind or visually impaired, this meant no longer wondering if that were a veranda or a ladder on the set the heroine was shouting from or if the burglar had broken the glass by tripping over a stray shoe or throwing a baseball. We even started finding out things like who was wearing a tuxedo, a bathing suit or a nightgown.

Live productions were also becoming savvier with regard to deaf and hearing-impaired customers. For live productions, interpreters were becoming a more familiar sight, conveying the spoken lines through American Sign Language to those unable to hear them. As early as 1972 WGBH, Boston's public television station, began providing closed captions — text equivalents of spoken lines — for some of its programming. Today nearly every PBS program and many on commercial networks offer the closed caption option.

Filling in the missing piece in television and movies came a bit more slowly for audiences unable to see the action, but it was again WGBH that stepped up to the plate. In 1990 the station took the concept of video description to a higher level, using professional writers to craft descriptive text and fit it into the pauses for public television programs. From there, the use of video description spread to home videos and commercial television networks and finally to first-run movies in movie theaters.

This new technology, called MoPix, finally came to Cincinnati just a year ago. The MoPix equipment is twofold: It provides description for people unable to see the screen clearly and closed captions for those unable to hear.

A dedicated server contains both the audio track for the video description and the closed captions to be viewed by deaf and hearing-impaired moviegoers. To deliver this added value to the customers who need it, the description is transmitted via an infrared signal to individual headsets and the captioning is reflected from LED displays at the back of the theater to personalized mini displays. If you're a customer who can benefit from either (or both) service, you simply request a headset or a rear window display (a small piece of Plexiglas mounted on a post) from customer service on your way into the show.

Every week at National Amusements' Western Hills theater and Springdale 18, one movie is playing that includes Rear Window Captioning and Descriptive Video Service (indicated in movie listings as CC/DVS). AMC's theater at Newport on the Levee is scheduled to receive the MoPix equipment this summer.

Needless to say, I've been going to more movies lately than I have for a long time. One unfortunate error over the past several weeks is that both National Amusements locations have been playing the same movie with CC/DVS — Cars last week, The da Vinci Code the week before — even though the majority of movies playing in both theaters actually have the video description and captioning available. Chuck Kiefer, district manager for National Amusements, says the error was an oversight and will be corrected.

Meanwhile, spread the word to your friends who have trouble seeing or hearing the big screen that going to the movies is now a richer and more inclusive experience. Whether you can hear perfectly or see well, you can even go to a movie by yourself and enjoy it.

And, yes, these days I can buy a copy of that classic movie that left me hanging as a teenager. So I finally did learn that Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa chose loyalty over romance at the end of Casablanca.

contact Deborah Kendrick: [email protected]