Feds readying movie theater regulations for blind and deaf patrons
By Julian Hattem
The Obama administration is nearing completion of a proposal to require that movie theaters offer technology so blind and deaf people can go to the cinema.
The draft rule, which is part of a decades-long effort by advocates for people with disabilities, would likely require thousands of movie theaters across the country to offer devices that display closed captioning and provide audio narration of what’s happening onscreen.
Disability associations say that the new regulation will make sure that blind and deaf people can appreciate the latest blockbuster just like everyone else.
But theater owners worry that a federal mandate will force small, rural and struggling theaters to close given the costs associated with the rule.
“These theaters can barely stay in existence and often need community support to break even,” the trade group wrote in a comment to the Justice Department’s 2010 precursor to the upcoming proposal. “To require them to install expensive closed captioning technology at this time is an undue financial burden that may result in these theaters closing.”
The upcoming proposal from the Justice Department is expected to require that a certain percentage of the more than 40,000 movie screens across the country offer headsets that provide a running commentary of visual action for the blind, glasses that display closed captioning for the deaf or other devices to explain what’s happening onscreen.
“All of this sort of comes down to choice for us,” said Eric Bridges, the director of external relations and policy at the American Council of the Blind. “We would like to have a choice in the movies that we go see that are video-described.”
The Justice Department's 2010 notice indicated that the department would require half of the country’s movie screens to offer the accessibility services.
Advocates for people with disabilities say that rule would be far too limited. Instead, they think all theaters in the country should offer the technology.
“The National Association of the Deaf believes strongly that all deaf and hard of hearing people should have equal access to all services in society available to everyone else,” said Howard Rosenblum, the association’s chief executive, in an email to The Hill. “It would be akin to only requiring that 50% of buses should have segregation for people of color and the other 50% of buses should be integrated. We believe that providing equal services is a civil rights that should apply to all theaters and not just a fraction.”
The National Association of Theatre Owners has reported that about half of the movie screens in the country currently offer the technology.
The trade group has opposed the upcoming rule. They say that, if anything, requiring services for people with sight and hearing loss at 25 percent of screens in movie theaters would be enough.
Plus, they say that theaters are likely to provide whatever services will help them draw in more customers. Setting a stringent regulatory requirement only punishes the few theaters that can’t afford the technologic advancements.
But the disability associations say that those voluntary standards leave blind and deaf people with few options if they want to go to the movies.
“Often times it’s one theater, it’s one movie,” said Bridges, who is blind.
“If I’m going to go out with another buddy of mine and I want to see a movie and I want to enjoy the movie equally with him, and he can see, we’re definitely not going to a chick flick even though it may be the only one described,” he added. “It’s about choice. It’s about the cultural experience of going to and taking part in the cinematic experience.”
The options can be even more limited for people who live in rural areas, added Rosenblum.
Since June, the White House has been reviewing the Justice Department’s proposed new regulations. It recently announced that it would extend its review by 30 days, indicating that the proposal will be released to the public in coming weeks.
Lawmakers are taking note of the new regulation.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has been a proponent of new accessibility rules.
In March he released a bill calling for all theaters with two or more screens to provide the services for all movies at all showings. At the time, he said that requiring the technology would “allow these Americans with disabilities to have the same access as everyone else.”
The movie industry has previously tried to push back rules until all theaters in the country convert to digital cinema, which is easier to align with closed captioning and description technologies.
The last of the theaters are finally beginning to convert, said a spokesman with the theater owner group, which should lead to more theaters adopting the technology.
“We’ve got about 90 percent of screens are digital,” said Patrick Corcoran. “That means that the captioning equipment that works best with it is being put in place.”
Small and independent theaters that don’t switch to digital, the association told the Justice Department, should be exempt from any new rules.