Doable: Accessibility the new star at area theaters

Published in the Asbury Park Press 2/23/05

NOT everyone cares about the Oscars. Some people chose not to run out to see this year's academy-nominated films before the awards show Sunday. And some people had no choice but to wait until the movies are released for rental or sale.

Until now.

Over the past few months, movie theaters across the state have been scrambling to make the big-screen experience accessible to people who are deaf and hard of hearing as part of a settlement with the state attorney general's office and the NJ Division on Civil Rights.

In the Shore area, first-run films featuring Rear Window captions became available in December at National Amusement's Hazlet Multiplex Cinemas and Clearview's Middlebrook Cinema 10 in Ocean Township.

"It's bringing more deaf people to the movies, which is a good thing," said Middlebrook assistant manager Dennis Arvidson.

Last week, the system was launched at Loews Brick Plaza 10 theaters, while the multiplex cinema company's theaters in Eatontown and Toms River were waiting for delivery of the transparent "windows" - reflectors that attach to theater seats and enable patrons to read captions as they view the film. All area Loews theaters were expected to have the systems up and running within days, said Lisa Bell, manager of Loews Seacourt Theatres in Toms River.

Although only one auditorium in each multiplex is equipped for closed-caption windows, Bell said area theater managers are planning to vary the films and advertise jointly to let patrons know which titles are playing in Freehold, Eatontown, Brick and Toms River.

"So there will be four choices of movies available for people willing to travel within a radius of 10 miles," Bell said.

National Amusements theaters are offering variety by alternating the types of Rear Window movies screened each week, publicity representative Brian Callahan said.

"One week it might be a children's movie, the next an action film and another a romantic comedy," Callahan said.

And all will be on prime-time schedules, such as weekend matinees and evenings. Previously, a few New Jersey theaters offered open captions on new movies, which were typically available at only one showing a month and usually midweek.

Not all area theaters have the new technology; it's packaged with Descriptive Video Service for people with vision impairments and costs around $10,000, prohibitive for small independent theaters. The state's settlement included four major movie chains; a fifth, Regal Entertainment, didn't agree to the accommodations and is being sued by the state.

"Movie theaters have been doing a great job providing wheelchair access, but not in providing access for deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons," said Bear Atwood, representing the state Division on Civil Rights during a Monmouth County Human Relations Commission meeting in Freehold this month. "Sometimes they just have to be told."

While they might have missed this year's Oscar picks, deaf and hard-of-hearing moviegoers have a significantly greater chance of sharing in that popular-culture experience by next year's show.

For information on Rear Window schedules, call your neighborhood theaters.

Linda Walls is a parent and grandparent of people with disabilities ranging from deafness and Tourette's syndrome to cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Her column appears in Wednesday's Jersey Life Accent on Food section. Write to her at the Asbury Park Press, 3601 Highway 66, Neptune, NJ 07754, or e-mail or call her at (732) 449-0696.