Sunday, May 23, 1999

Systems help deaf, blind enjoy movies in theater

Enquirer contributor

        Movies are an important part of our culture. At work, at home and at dinner parties, conversation turns to the latest escapades on the big screen. For millions of Americans, only half of the content in first-run movies has, to now, been available.

        For a person who is deaf to attend the local movie theater means to settle for pictures only. And for a person who is blind, the experience has included some guess work regarding those key visual elements of action, gestures and dress.

        About 20 years ago, television viewing changed dramatically for the deaf with the advent of closed captioning, the addition of word-for-word text on the screen to enable someone who is deaf or hard of hearing to follow spoken dialogue. Nearly 10 years ago, Descriptive Video Service (DVS) was added to some television programs (a narration describing visual elements on the screen) for people who are blind or visually impaired.

  For additional information on MoPix, visit the Web site of the National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) at or write to NCAM, WGBH Educational Foundation, 125 Western Ave., Boston, MA 02134.

        For more information about Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, visit the official Star Wars Web site at

        For information on General Cinema Theatres in particular communities or specific dates and showtimes, visit the General Cinema Web site at

        To learn more about described programming on PBS stations or home videos, visit the DVS Web site at

        WGBH-TV in Boston was the birthplace for both breakthroughs, and work begun there has recently moved the pleasure of movie-going dramatically forward for these two disability groups.

        Home videos with Closed Caption have become almost commonplace, and movie videos with description in the original soundtrack are increasing. Beginning Wednesday, however, moviegoers with visual or hearing impairments were able to attend the General Cinema Theatres in designat ed cities to see Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace — and can enjoy every element of the film.

        The technology is called Rear Window Captioning and DVS Theatrical systems. It was developed at WGBH's Motion Picture Access Project (MoPix). Once it is installed in a theater for a given movie, a blind or deaf patron can sit anywhere during the film and enjoy the Closed Caption or Descriptive Narration.

        The Rear Window Captioning System displays reversed captions on a light-emitting diode (LED) text display, which is mounted in the rear of a theater. Deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons use transparent acrylic panels attached to their seats to reflect the captions so that they appear superimposed on the movie screen. The panels are portable and adjustable.

        DVS Theatricals provides an audio description of visual elements of a film via infrared or FM systems. A headset worn by the person needing description privately delivers the additional narrative track.

        Star Wars with Rear Window and Descriptive Narration began showing this week at General Cinemas in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Seattle. In the near future, it will also be available at theaters in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. There will be no extra charge for this service.

        I have been a lover of movies for as long as I can remember. Still, when a friend asked me several years ago if I would ever attend a movie alone, I shook my head. Now, the reason for that response is changing.

        Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. E-mail her at or write c/o The Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati 45202.


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