Advocates cite disability laws
By LEVI PULKKINEN
P-I REPORTER 2/16/09
For most cinema buffs, silent movies went out with the Coolidge administration eight decades ago.
But for film fans who are hard of hearing, today’s theaters offer little beyond an indecipherable silence. Captioned showings remain rare, and existing technology that would allow attendees to read along at their seats is rarely used.
Now, a small group of Washington residents hopes to change that through a lawsuit filed earlier this month in King County Superior Court.
As others have around the nation, the lawsuit’s proponents claim that most King County theaters are violating disability laws by failing to make the movies accessible to people with limited hearing.
“We can only go so far ourselves, and then we need a little help from other people so we can participate fully in life,” said John Waldo, an attorney with the Washington State Communication Access Project, which filed the suit. “What we would like is just a much more equal opportunity.”
Waldo, who has had limited hearing his whole life, said he and others with similar disabilities want to be able to enjoy a night at the movies as hearing people do. As the number of Americans with hearing disabilities increases, he argued, so does the need for accessible entertainment.
Although most theaters provide amplifying headphones to customers, those are of little use to people with moderate or severe hearing impairment. Instead, Waldo said, customers with hearing impairment need to be able to read the dialogue, either through captions projected onto the screen or through another system in use at some Seattle theaters.
In the second system, currently used at AMC Pacific Place 11 in Seattle and other area cinemas, the written dialogue is projected from the rear of the theater onto clear plastic panels affixed to hearing-impaired customers’ seats. The captions aren’t visible to anyone without a panel.
By Waldo’s accounting, captions are available for 80 percent to 90 percent of all films shown in Seattle-area theaters. The problem, he said, is that theaters only offer a limited number of shows with any kind of captioning available.
At best, he said, most theaters only offer one or two showings daily that include either type of captioning. Waldo hopes to change that, and insists that the theaters should at least offer captioned showings of each movie they play.
“The dream,” he said, is “that we’d be able to go to any movie, any time and understand it.”
Calls to theater owners named in the suit were not returned at press time. A spokesperson for the Motion Picture Association of America, which has historically opposed such efforts, did not respond to requests for comment.
Responding to a similar suit in Arizona, theater owner Harkins Amusements Inc. successfully argued that mandating captioning amounted to forcing a change in the content of an artistic work.
“The (Americans with Disabilities Act) does not require Harkins to ‘stock’ captioned films or reconfigure the films it shows to provide captioning or descriptions,” attorneys for the company said in court documents. ” ‘As long as the disabled have access to the movies Harkins shows, Harkins has fully complied with the ADA.”
A federal district court judge agreed, but the case has gone to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for review.
Waldo said he is hopeful the higher court will reverse the decision, and that he believes Washington’s state disability law, which affords more protections for the disabled, wouldn’t allow for a similar interpretation. Although the current action targets only King County theaters, he said he believes the ruling here could have far-reaching implications.
“What we do here,” he said, “will set a pattern for the rest of the state.”
P-I reporter Levi Pulkkinen can be reached at 206-448-8348 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Thanks to NVRC, Fairfax