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January 2, 2005

For Deaf Patrons, New View Of Moviegoing Experience

From: Washington Post, DC - Jan 2, 2005

'Personal Caption' Technology Spreads Locally

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page C03

Adam Schafer saw the first "Lord of the Rings" movie when it came out. But apart from a few lines of subtitled Elvish, Schafer had no idea what anyone was saying.

Like other deaf theater patrons, he had to wait weeks or, more commonly, months to see captioned versions of blockbuster films, either in limited theatrical showings or on DVD.

Schafer can largely avoid that now, thanks to a new captioning system that dramatically expands film offerings for deaf cinema customers in the Washington area.

Twenty screens at 11 theaters in Maryland, Virginia and the District offer Rear Window, a technology that allows individual patrons to watch dialogue on a small plexiglass screen mounted in an armrest cup holder. Most of the cinemas have added the equipment in response to a federal court settlement approved last spring that promised to make the region a national leader in providing cinema choices to deaf moveigoers.

"It's an excellent way to see films," said Schafer, 27, of Takoma Park, who grew up watching movies without sound or captions. He now goes to movies once or twice a month with his wife.

Rear Window is liberating, advocates say, because it allows deaf patrons to see any showing of a film in a theater with the captioning system. A patron requests a unit, mounts it and adjusts it as one would a rear-view mirror, positioning it to reflect off a screen mounted at the rear of the theater, near the projection window. The captions roll backward, so that they appear correctly in mirror image.

In the past, deaf patrons usually had to wait for rare screenings of open-caption versions of popular films. Those prints play with captions imprinted on the film, the same system used for subtitling in foreign-language films. Open captioning is widely regarded as the best way for the deaf to watch movies.

But because those prints are made for a limited audience, showings are few and far between. For example, open-caption versions of "Meet the Fockers" and "Polar Express" are not scheduled to play anywhere in the region between now and February, according to, the site of a nonprofit group that promotes open captioning. The open-caption version of "Ocean's Twelve" will be at an Annapolis theater for two days this month and in Arlington for three days ending Feb. 1.

The other choice is to wait for the video or DVD.

Schafer, now a Rear Window convert, first saw "Spider-man," "Lord of the Rings" and the recent "Star Wars" films without sound; as a rule of thumb, he and other deaf movie-goers gravitate to films that are heavy on action and light on gab, if they choose something without captions. They also, for obvious reasons, frequent foreign-language films.

Flummoxed by the first installment of "Lord of the Rings," Schafer and his wife "went home and read the book and got the basic plot," he said. "Then, we waited a year for it to come out on DVD."

Courts in the District and New Jersey have worked out settlements between the deaf community and theater owners in the past year to bring Rear Window captioning to more theaters. One settlement was prompted by a lawsuit; the other, in New Jersey, by a state investigation of access for the deaf to movie theaters.

Similar lawsuits in Oregon and Texas failed; the Oregon plaintiffs had sought a nationwide class action, and the Texas plaintiffs wanted Rear Window in every theater in Houston. "Neither court was willing to go that far," said John Stanton, a District lawyer who was a plaintiff in the D.C. case.

Stanton and two other plaintiffs filed suit in early 2000, and, "had we settled it at the time, I probably would have been seeing several Rear-Window showings a month," Stanton said in an e-mail interview. Now a parent of a newborn, he's gotten to only a handful of showings since the settlement, in April.

The chains AMC and Loews Cineplex agreed to install captioning equipment in 12 Washington area theaters during the next two years. The Crown Theatres chain decided on its own to put Rear Window captioning in its Crown Harbour 9 theater at Annapolis Harbour Center when the megaplex reopened last month. Crown had installed the technology in Minneapolis and Glenview, Ill., to positive reviews.

"They really prefer this system," said Zvi Cole, spokesman for Crown. "It opens up accessibility to them because they can see the film at normal showtimes with their friends and family. It's a personal device, rather than having the words go across the whole film."

Installing Rear Window costs $10,000 to $15,000 per theater, meaning that to put the system in two theaters at the same megaplex would cost twice that. The National Center for Accessible Media at WGBH, the public broadcaster in Boston that developed the technology, maintains a list of theaters offering Rear Window and how many shows are available with the technology, which can be seen at

The first Rear Window unit appeared at the National Air and Space Museum in 1996, said Larry Goldberg, one of the system's inventors at WGBH.

Theater chains remain reluctant to invest in Rear Window, partly because of looming changes in theater technology that could render the device obsolete in a few years, said Steven J. Fellman, Washington counsel for the National Association of Theatre Owners.

Digital film projection is a few years away, he said, and that technology will allow filmmakers to easily encode each print with the open captions that many deaf viewers prefer. Open captioning is comparatively costly at present.

Fellman also points out that the deaf community is far from unanimous in embracing Rear Window.

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 does not require theaters to provide open captioning. It does, however, call for courts to review new technology, such as Rear Window, that could improve access for the disabled, Fellman said. The New Jersey court acted on a state anti-discrimination law.

The technology is not for everyone. Megan Matovich, a 19-year-old sophomore at Gallaudet University in the District, tried Rear Window last year at Disneyland and hasn't sought it out since.

"I found it difficult to see the caption," Matovich said in an e-mail interview, "because the mirror had to be at the right angle and it was not on the screen with the picture. If there was too much light behind it, I couldn't see the words."

Matovich is director of student rights for the university's student government, and in that role she considers Rear Window a big step toward equal access. She doesn't like to wait for a film to be shown with open captioning. Instead, she usually goes with her family and asks her mother to interpret for her, or she goes with friends and picks something without much dialogue. Or she waits for the DVD.

Dina Raevsky, another student leader at Gallaudet, also disdains Rear Window: "Imagine looking through a slant thing sitting in an awkward position, cringing your eyes for two hours. . . . Joy!" she said in an e-mail. Raevsky said she prefers to get captioned DVDs.

"Nonetheless," she wrote, "it would be nice to see 'Polar Express' on big screen."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company