Sunday, October 22, 2000

Alive and well

Technology lets disabled enjoy shows

        Whether you're at a neighborhood party or hanging around the coffee pot at work, chances are that someone will make a comment about a recently viewed movie or television program. Part of “fitting in” and being part of our culture is to “get it” when such allusions occur.

        For some 34 million Americans who are either blind or deaf, things are looking up. In the last 20 years, closed captions for the deaf have become increasingly commonplace on television and home videos.

        For 10 years, video description (audible interpretations of strictly visual details between natural pauses in dialogue) has been added to programs on public television. Due to recent FCC rulings as well as innovative efforts with first-run movies, prospects look bright for access to TV and movies for Americans with sensory disabilities.
       Since 1990, video description has been the domain of PBS.

        Both Descriptive Video Service (DVS) and closed-captioning techniques have been designed and developed by WGBH-TV in Boston. Viewers who activate the Second Audio Program (SAP) on their VCR or television can hear descriptions of the action, gestures or appearance of characters in such PBS programs as Arthur, Mister Rogers, Nature, American Experience, Nova and others.

        As of a July 21 ruling of the Federal Communications Commission, however, video description will now be expanded to prime-time commercial network programming. Specifically, the new rule requires that by the second quarter of 2002, affiliates of the top four broadcast TV networks in the top 25 markets will provide 50 hours a quarter of prime time and/or children's programming with video description.

        Cable systems with 50,000 or more subscribers will provide 50 hours per calendar quarter of prime time and/or children's programming with video description on the top five national nonbroadcast networks they carry.

        And broadcast stations and cable systems that provide local emergency information will make that information accessible to persons with visual disabilities.
        While most home videos are now available with the familiar CC logo, and 200-plus popular titles are now available with video description from WGBH Home Video, enjoying first-run movies has been a matter of improvisation until the last few years.

        The Motion Picture Access Project (MOPIX), a part of WGBH's Media Access Division, is committed to enabling movie fans who have vision or hearing disabilities to enjoy new movies.

        At participating theaters, patrons pick up a Rear Window deflector for private viewing of the film's captions or an audio headset for private listening to video description.

        Movies with these features included Titanic, Hollow Man, The Phantom Menace, Entrapment, Toy Story 2, Green Mile and several others. The Contender includes Rear Window captioning, and several upcoming movies will open with both video description and captioning.

        Theaters in 21 states carry both access technologies. No Tristate theaters have this technology, but for some films, Springdale Showcase Cinema has open captioning, where text is displayed on the screen for everyone.

        For more information on theaters and first-run movies, visit For a full report on the FCC ruling, visit For PBS programs or home videos, visit

       Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. E-mail:


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