From the invention of the printing press to the emergence of streaming television, technological advances often bring media and entertainment to larger audiences than ever before.
But not always. Take the history of cinema, for instance.
“The last time that deaf moviegoers had full access at movie theaters was the silent film era,” says Erik Nordlof, a 31-year-old deaf film fan who lives in Arlington, Virginia. “Then for decades, the deaf community had no access at all.”
In recent decades, some movie theaters began offering individual closed captioning devices, which come in the form of special glasses or armrest-mounted displays. As of this year, movie theaters are required to provide specific numbers of such devices for all digital movies. Those steps should re-open access to moviegoing for deaf and hard of hearing audiences, yet the issues with closed captioning devices — which included uncomfortable design, unreliable quality, and theater employees forgetting to charge them — make the experience more hassle than it’s worth.
Many in the deaf community would prefer to see movies with captions turned on for the entire audience, according to Nordlof, who created a Facebook group to advocate for such screenings, called open caption screenings at cinemas near him. Nordlof started DC Deaf Moviegoers two years ago and has attracted more than 1,700 members. Based on input from those members, he and a friend, Jessica Huang, organize about six open caption movie screenings per month in Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia.
The initiative sprang from Nordlof’s own frustration with closed captioning equipment. The devices rely on radio frequency, and when there is interference in the signal, lines are dropped. In 2015, for instance, Nordlof tried to see “Sicario” in a theater, but he missed so much dialogue during the opening scenes that he left after 15 minutes.
Dropped lines aren’t the only complaint about the devices. JoAnna Marker, a 28-year-old member of DC Deaf Moviegoers, says that caption glasses are uncomfortable and awkward since the captions move wherever the viewer turns. “For instance if you look to the right, the captioning will still be running and it will inhibit us from having a conversation.”
“Each poor movie-going experience registers with us, especially when it is intended to be a night out, complete with dinner,” says Nordlof who began researching open captions after his “Sicario” experience. “It’s difficult not to be anxious about if everything will go smoothly with an upcoming moviegoing experience. Open captions remove that anxiety and doubt.”
Nordlof first suggested an open caption screening as an activity for a local deaf group to which he belongs. The event attracted about 20 people to a showing of “Inside Out” months after its initial release. From there, he went bigger. He launched the DC Deaf Moviegoers Facebook group and organized an open caption screening of “The Martian” for the week after it premiered. About 90 deaf or hard of hearing people attended. Nordlof says it was “a great communal event” that drove him to organize and promote more screenings. “Open captions are so freeing and so convenient. I loved having that experience and wanted to help others have that too.”
Nordlof and Huang run monthly surveys to gauge group members’ interest in upcoming films. They then place requests for open caption screenings at three local cinemas. The ease of working with theaters varies. Regal Cinemas, for instance, will host screenings for any group of 10 or more with advance notice, while managers at AMC Theatres told Nordlof that the entire auditorium would have to be bought out in advance to hold a screening there. Several independent theaters in the D.C. area regularly schedule open caption screenings without outside requests, and Nordlof and Huang compile those details alongside information about the group’s requested screenings. The full list of upcoming showings is shared weekly on the Facebook group and an email list.
Members of DC Deaf Moviegoers say they attend movies more often because of the group and that they love the communal experience it creates. Eric Cardenas, a 30-year-old who lives in D.C., called it a “dream to watch new movies with families and friends without using captioned devices.”
Nordlof, whose favorite movie this year was Blade Runner 2049, says that organizing screenings on opening weekend for films with a lot of buzz is especially satisfying. At the same time, he wishes his efforts weren’t necessary.
“I love movies enough that I am glad to do this every week, but I do want to pose the question, why is it the burden of a private citizen to set up this accessibility that is much favored over the routine approach? We are working within the system, but we need to see the system change.”
Nordlof and other deaf and hard of hearing moviegoers point out that they are not the only ones who can enjoy open captioned films. Hearing moviegoers always comprise part of the audience for the screenings, and captions can be helpful for other types of viewers, such as those learning English as a second language.
“We would love for the hearing population to advocate for open captions with us and have movie theaters show them more often,” says Nordlof.
There’s precedent for his vision. In 2015, Hawaii became the first state to require open captions. Theaters must schedule at least two open caption screenings per week for each movie, according to Hawaii News Now.
Nordlof hopes to similar steps in other states and D.C. “For the rest of the country, we have to work to persuade the movie theaters to schedule (open caption) screenings, to get the word out, and to get more and more people involved.”