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May 6, 2004

St. Paul teen raises volume on Capitol Hill

From: Minneapolis Star Tribune, MN - May 6, 2004

Rob Hotakainen and Emily Johns, Star Tribune Washington Bureau Correspondents May 6, 2004

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When deaf and hard-of-hearing students from Minnesota met recently with Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., they registered a complaint: It's too hard for them to enjoy movies.

Of the 35,774 movie screens in the United States, fewer than 500 use subtitles or captions.

"If hearing people had the video off or the volume off, how would they feel?" asked Samantha Ruhland, an eighth-grader at Metro Deaf School in St. Paul.

On Wednesday, Dayton introduced legislation that would give a 90 percent tax credit for theaters and movie producers to cover the cost of providing captioning access.

Dyan Sherwood, director at Metro Deaf School, said that Dayton was first alerted to the issue when Ruhland -- whose mother works in Dayton's Minnesota office --wrote him a letter last fall. Dayton then made arrangements to meet with the school's teachers and all fifth-through eighth-grade students.

Ruhland, who was interviewed through an interpreter, said that she and her friends went to movies last summer without any interpreters and only got frustrated.

"I want to be able to go to a movie and understand everything by myself," she said.

Sherwood said Ruhland's frustrations are normal for young teens, who regard going to movies as a big part of their social lives.

"They just feel it's really not fair," she said. "When you're 13 or 14 years old, you want the same rights as any other 13- or 14-year-old. ... That's why this is such a big deal for adolescents and young teenagers."

Dayton, D-Minn., announced his plan at a news conference on Capitol Hill, saying it would help 28 million deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans "enjoy one of life's great pleasures." He was accompanied by deaf students from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and representatives from the movie industry.

The issue is already gaining traction in the courts.

In 2000, three deaf people sued two theater chains in Washington, D.C., alleging that a lack of captioning violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Under a settlement approved by a federal judge last month, theaters in the Washington area will soon become equipped with rear-window captioning.

The system displays reversed captions at the rear of the theater. Deaf and hard-of-hearing movie-goers see the captions by using transparent acrylic panels attached to their seats that reflect the captions so that they appear superimposed on the movie screen. The panels, which fit into the seat's cup-holder, are portable and can be used anywhere in the theater.

Dayton offered his plan as an amendment to a corporate tax bill that's being debated in the Senate. If it's passed, he said, it would be "one of the few redeeming features" of the bill.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Dayton's office was optimistic that the amendment would pass, even without a formal vote. A spokeswoman for Dayton said that top-ranked Republicans and Democrats who were managing the debate were considering including the language in the final bill.

'It is expensive'

Dayton's plan would cost $301 million over 10 years, according to an estimate by the Joint Committee on Taxation.

"It is expensive," said Bob Strong, a senior manager at Block E's 15-screen Crown Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. "Each unit in the booth costs about $25,000."

Strong said the theater installed the equipment in two of its 15 auditoriums. He said that the equipment is used very little in Minnesota and that providing a tax credit would make the service more desirable for more theaters to install.

"We're doing it just because we have a small dedicated audience that looks to us to have that captioning available for them," Strong said.

Congress is starting to get more complaints on the issue. An Internet petition addressed to Congress urges all members to make sure that all movie theaters provide closed captioning "so that we may enjoy movies like everyone else who can hear well."

Dayton said he has discussed his legislation with representatives from the Motion Picture Association of America, the National Association of Theater Owners and the National Association of the Deaf.

He said the theater owners told him the cost of installing the systems was prohibitive. When Dayton asked them what he could do to help, he said that most agreed that tax credits would be the best approach.

Dayton defended the cost of his plan, saying it amounted to about $1 a year spent for every deaf person in America.

"[Deaf] people have very limited choices about which movies they're able to see," he said. "It would mean a lot to those who want to live their lives like the rest of us."

It would certainly mean a lot for Ruhland. These days, she'd like to see "Mean Girls," but it's not playing in one of the two Block E theaters that have captions.

"I hope that people will vote to pass this law," Ruhland said. "And then [the captions] can be on all movies, all the time."

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