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October 27, 2004

Deaf demand subtitles at all movie theatres

From: National Post, Canada - Oct 27, 2004

'Suppose the theatres started playing movies with no sound. How would you feel,' complainant asks

Michael Friscolanti

National Post

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

TORONTO - Three deaf people, including a former Ontario MPP, have filed a human rights complaint against some of the country's largest movie companies in a bid to have subtitles displayed at every theatre in Canada.

The discrimination case, which lands in front of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal this morning, could cost the motion-picture industry millions of dollars in technological upgrades.

At the heart of the dispute is why only a small percentage of theatres are equipped with "Rear Window Captioning" (RWC), a system that projects subtitles on to small reflective devices placed in patrons' cup holders. For more than 310,000 deaf people in Canada, it is the only way to enjoy Hollywood's latest releases.

"Suppose the movie theatres started playing movies -- all movies -- with no sound and no captioning," said Scott Simser, one of the complainants. "How would you all feel?"

Named in the complaint are Canada's premier film studios, distributors and theatres, including Universal Studios, Alliance Atlantis, Famous Players and Cineplex Odeon.

All are accused of failing to ensure that every theatre is 100% accessible to deaf movie buffs.

"This is a huge case," said complainant Greg Malkowski, a former New Democrat MPP most remembered for being the first politician to use sign language in a Canadian legislature.

"Our goal is to make sure that all of the movie industry is made accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals."

The challenge for the tribunal will be to decide whether some of the companies -- if any -- are more to blame than others for the alleged discrimination.

The distributors, for example, are accused of failing to release all their films in a format compatible with the RWC devices. The theatres, on the other hand, are being targeted for failing to equip all their screens with the technology.

"[The theatres] point the finger at the distributors and the distributors point the finger back at them, so there is this whole blame and lack of taking accountability," Mr. Malkowski said yesterday.

That finger-pointing is expected to continue once the hearing begins.

Hugh Christie, a lawyer for Universal Studios, said 90% of the movies his client releases conform to the RWC format. And all of them, he said, are available with conventional subtitles at the bottom of the screen, should the theatres decide to display them.

"Universal's position is they consider themselves a market leader in accommodating the hearing impaired community," Mr. Christie said. "They welcome the opportunity to have this hearing and get on the public record what they do, because they are quite proud of it."

The problem, he suggested, is that most theatres in Canada do not have Rear Window Captioning. So even if distributors release movies according to the necessary format, theatres have no way to display them.

A spokeswoman for Cineplex Odeon did not return telephone calls yesterday, but Nuria Bronfman, the vice-president of corporate affairs at Famous Players, confirmed that only 30 of the company's 890 screens in Canada are equipped with RWC.

However, she said Famous Players installed the technology in all major markets where research revealed a high volume of deaf Canadians. She also said the percentage coincides with the number of RWC-friendly movies released by the distributors.

"We installed them where we knew there was a desire for them," said Ms. Bronfman, whose company was honoured last year by the Hearing Foundation of Canada for its efforts to accommodate deaf patrons. "We're happy that they are used and we're happy that we can provide them."

Each RWC device costs approximately $20,000 -- a hefty price tag if Famous Players is ordered to install them in the other 860 theatres it operates.

"We're just going to have to wait and see what the Human Rights Tribunal says about it," Ms. Bronfman said. "They have the facts, so we'll just wait and see."

© National Post 2004