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Going to the Movies with Hearing Loss

While our more experienced audience knows about accommodations at the movies, those new to hearing loss may not. Signage is usually not prominent nor do they advertise that assistive listening or caption devices are available. Most of the time, we find out peer to peer. 

Assistive Listening
Movies are a long standing family tradition. This is Chelle with her adult children waiting for a Star Wars movie to start.

Assistive listening has been available at movie theaters for many years. Chelle started using assistive listening in the late 90’s at her local theater. The large headphones helped her enough with the dialog that could watch movies without feeling like she lost too much. Her only issue was that it was an infrared system. She sat in a dark theater with a conspicuous red, glowing dot on the back of head. Talk about feeling signaled out! Her desire to hear was bigger than her embarrassment thank goodness. 

When hearing loss hits a certain point, assistive listening technology may not work well enough for watching movies. That’s when those with progressive hearing loss, and deafness, need captions. Chelle had a big drop in hearing in 2007 and assistive listening no longer gave her enough of the dialog. There was/is too much background noise, music and the actors are not always facing the screen so lipreading isn’t an option either. She stopped going to the movies for about 4-5 years because it was pure anguish not being able to understand the dialog. It was easier to wait for movies to come out on DVDs that had captions.

Foreign Films with Subtitles

With a severe hearing loss, even English speaking films sound foreign. Salt Lake City has a theater that features foreign films with subtitles. Chelle watched a few foreign films for the subtitles. The drawback here was that there would be no subtitles if the characters started speaking English. This experience left gaps in dialog as well.

Text: CaptiView closed caption viewing system.
Image: red theater seats with the captiview in the cup holder. A closer image of the captiview display with captions.
Image is from Landmark Theaters.
Image is from Landmark Theaters

It’s only been the last 12 – 14  years that CaptiViews became available. CaptiViews have an LED screen, a flexible arm which has an anchor that fits into the seat cup holders. Dialog and sound descriptions appear on the LED screen. Since Chelle was used to movies not being accessible to her, it took a few years to realize she could go to the theater whenever she wanted, sort of. There are frustrations with the CaptiView device.

This recent article by The Guardian (January 2024) I Miss Out on the Family Experience shares what it feels like when the CaptiView experience goes wrong. (Learn more about CaptiViews HERE.) There were many times Chelle had to go hunt down someone after the movie started because:

  • The CaptiView was programmed for the wrong movie. The captions did not match the movie.
  • The device wasn’t charged long enough and the battery gave out halfway through the movie.
  • The bendable arm was loose, making the CaptiView floppy. Once Chelle held the device up by hand throughout the entire movie because she didn’t want to miss anything.
  • It’s two different depths of vision; looking at the device to read captions and then adjusting vision to watch the screen. Back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes we miss the action while reading captions.

Every time she went to the theater for the first year or so of the devices, each time she wondered if it would work, or not. It was a 50/50 chance. Persistence paid off and eventually she had the staff/management ‘trained.’ Also, they got tired of giving her free tickets after missing too much of the movie. Not enough of us ask for the CaptiViews so they may not be well maintained. The more of us asking, the better it would be…but first we have to know about it!

Caption Glasses

Then came caption glasses at Regal Theaters. The glasses have a battery pack, with a wire leading up to the glasses. Captions could be adjusted through the battery pack to be bigger or brighter. No floppy arm to deal with! However, for those of us who wear glasses and hearing aids, it gets kind of heavy on the nose and ears.

Chelle wearing caption glasses over her glasses. A cord runs down from the glasses down her body. She is smiling. 
She has shoulder length brown hair with curls, she's smiling and wearing a purple shirt.
Caption Glasses at Regal Cinemas
Open Captions

Finally, at long last, open captions are catching on. In Utah, we are lucky in that the MegaPlex theaters offer several open captioned (OC) showings. With open captions, the captions are on theater screens, just like watching TV at home. Our eyes are in one place, on the screen. There’s no devices to pick up or return making the movie theater experience enjoyable again. 

At a movie theater in front of a movie poster. A man in a checkered mask, a boy smiling, a lady with a another boy in front of her and man standing off the right in a yellow jacket. There's a movie poster between the man on the right and the lady with a child. Two people in this picture have hearing loss.
Family togetherness, going to an open captioned movie.

Captions come available on all digital formatted films (most theaters have switched to the digital by now). It’s a matter of turning on the captions and MegaPlex does that for us. 

Navigating theater websites for accessibility can be tricky. As an example, the MegaPlex theaters say all movies have captions. This is true if you pick up the caption device. To find open captioned showings but we need to navigate their menu. To give you an idea, at the MegaPlex…

  • We choose the theater we want to go to.
  • Once at the particular theater site, we click on the “All Format Options” button.
  • Select “Open Captions” from the drop down menu. Then it shows which movies are captioned and when.
Chelle’s Experience

I’ve attended many open captioned movies. Never have I seen anyone walk out because of the captions. The screen is so big the captions don’t take over the screen. I’m fairly sure that even hearing people miss dialog with all the background noise, not to mention the *BOOM*BOOM* coming from the theater next door. 

Captions don’t just help the deaf and hard of hearing, they also help people with auditory processing disorder, English as a second language and they help kids learn to read. People with ADHD benefit from captions and so do those with autism and other disabilities. All 3 of my kids grew up with captions and continued to use captions when they moved out. Captions benefit everyone.

Learn More About Captioned Movie History
Learn More with Hearing Loss LIVE!
  • Meet our friend Maclain Drake. He makes music accessible and he also advocated with the local movie theaters for better accessibility.
  • Learn more about assistive listening with Listen Technologies. They manufacture assistive listening systems and provide a variety of systems. 
  • Live theater can have captioning as well. We talk to Vicki Turner who captions plays, music and more.  

One reply on “Going to the Movies with Hearing Loss”

Great article. In Western Canada we are behind with no open captions. Some theatres don’t even have closed captions.

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