Are Movie Theater Caption Readers Properly Maintained?

Since discovering caption readers at the movies a couple of years ago, I have firmly embraced heading to the movie theater to take in a film now and again. And with most movie theaters in my area now offering some type of captioning device, I can choose the movie based on where and when I want to see it, not where and when the accessibility options are offered. This is a treat, and one that I have come to expect.

But recently, things are feeling less secure. In each of the last four times I went to the movies, there has been an issue with the captioning. It makes me wonder if the devices are being properly maintained.

The first time I had a problem, the entire system was down, so the theater offered me a rain check. The second time, the gooseneck attachment arm was not rigid enough to hold the caption reader aloft. No matter how hard we wedged it into the cup holder, the device would slowly fall to the side, making the captions unusable. A replacement device worked better, but still was not perfect. Maybe the gooseneck arms are wearing out?

The third time was an issue of training / human error. The device eventually worked, but only after I figured out how to link it to the correct theater. It had been programmed for theater 1, but I was in theater 5. I was tech savvy enough to fix this issue on my own, but I’m not sure everyone would be as lucky.

In the most recent instance, everything worked smoothly until two-thirds of the way through the movie, when the caption reader began to display, “Select language.” Turning it on and off rebooted the system and reconnected the captions, but that only lasted a few minutes before the same message appeared. I was not tech savvy enough to fix this issue — particularly in the dark while the movie was playing — but rather than leave the theater for a replacement device and miss the end of the movie, I decided to stay and get filled in later.

As a person with hearing loss, I find these inconsistencies frustrating and insulting, but as an advocate, they make me angry. Even when an excellent accessibility feature has been developed and implemented broadly, poor training, uneven maintenance and uncharged batteries can quickly turn it into nothing.

Each time I had trouble, I brought it to the attention of the staff person involved, and when possible, the theater manager, but most seem unconcerned. “Yeah, we have that problem a lot,” is not a satisfying answer, when you have spent your money expecting to see the movie with accessibility options intact. So what can we do to change this trend?

1. Speak up. When something goes awry, let management know. Be polite, factual, but also explain that you are disappointed and sad that your needs were not met. The only way theater personnel will understand the importance of these devices is if we demonstrate it. Maybe over time, it has an impact and performance improves.

2. Team up. There is strength in numbers. A national organization like Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) speaking to the theater companies’ headquarters may do more to implement the required changes in training and procedures than a grass-roots effort one theater at a time. In reality, both are likely needed to spark change.

3. Compliment good service. When the devices work well, praise management. Tell them how much you enjoyed the movie and explain how important the caption reader was to your experience. Positive feedback can be a great motivator.

4. Don’t give up. Advocacy work never ends. Even when we seemingly win a battle — good and widespread accessibility options — upkeep is required. We should continue to go to the movies, use the devices and make our needs known. Together we can make a difference.

Readers, do you advocate at your local movie theater?

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35 thoughts on “Are Movie Theater Caption Readers Properly Maintained?

  1. I have had similar experiences. Speaking up? Yeah, but in the meantime…
    In the meantime, actually, I find myself contemplating getting a larger TV screen and sticking to closed captioning at home.
    In fact, at the movie theatre nearest us, the devices have been unpredictable from the start.

  2. Yes! Ever since reading here that such devices were EVEN available I wrote to the Canadian Cineplex head office in Ontario and praised them for supplying them in the first place…and made suggestions on advertising more visibly because I never would have known of their existence had it NOT been for THIS blog! They assured me they would work with all their theater managers etc. Seeing a tiny cc notation under the individual movie advert on the website wasn’t enough and could be overlooked.
    I also posted on Facebook on my local city’s page and rec’d much feedback on how they didnt know/would past info along to hearing impaired friends and family. I told Cineplex they were missing out on an important demographic of people that would attend.
    The more we talk about it, the more the word gets out!

  3. Shari…

    Seeing films at the theater stopped being an option for me, years ago.
    Those caption devices are just not the same as seeing the captions at the bottom of the screen I’m viewing…It just isn’t comfortable, to turn my neck and head upwards, toward the right side, in order to see those captions.
    I watch films at home, on NETFLIX, or on Amazon PRIME. It’s so much more terms of mechanical operation and, in terms of being able to pause, rewind, fast forward, etc.
    I like being in control of what I’m watching, when I’m watching.
    I don’t even long for the days when I enjoyed theaters.
    Not being in crowds, is also much better for me.
    Yes, it’s a bit isolating, but, I prefer to control my own environment, especially since my hearing acuity has gotten even worse.

  4. I totally agree with you. I feel like I could have written this article based on so many of the same situations I’ve encountered. I especially hate driving a half hour to a theater knowing they have a device, fastening it into my cup holder, excited with anticipation, after careful planning between my husband’s work schedule and dinner, only to find out that the device is not working properly (or at all), or the theater was not set up for this movie and missing the beginning of the movie! At that point we usually just give up and ask for a refund. And miss out on a rare night at the movies. So frustrating!

  5. Shari, so glad you wrote about this. Will try to keep short. Yes I definitely advocate! Problems with Captiview became so great that I stopped going to theatres with them after about 8 problem visits. My attempts to contact AMC corporate have been unsuccessful. Also technology is several years old and would think they could come up with something better by now. I’ve had much better success with SONY glasses at Regal. Yes some problems but staff as always been successful and knowledgeable. My biggest complaint has been dirty lenses I know some find glasses uncomfortable but I have learned to live with minor discomfort And finally I always say thank you with returning device

  6. Thanks, Shari, for addressing cinema access for us. As a film buff it’s been a continuing advocacy cause of mine since 2012; see this from HLAA’s magazine in 2013:

    Not much has changed, other than the caption devices became a requirement of law three years later and long after lawsuits were brought and the chains began “voluntarily” offering them.

    Alas, caption viewers often don’t fit snugly in cupholders, especially in older cinemas. I often wedge a folded napkin or plastic comb between the base of the device and the side of the cupholder for stability.

    In Manhattan, the Paris Cinema’s seats don’t have cupholders and although they provide caption devices to clamp on to armrests, they topple over and must be held up. After I complained to the manager and we exchanged correspondence over a six-month period but to no avail, I told him I had no recourse but to file a complaint with the Justice Department. The ADA’s captioning regulations state, under 28 CFR 36.303(g)(5):

    “Each captioning device and each audio description device must be properly maintained by the movie theater to ensure that each device is fully operational, available to patrons in a timely manner, and easily usable by patrons. Captioning devices must be adjustable so that the captions can be viewed as if they are on or near the movie screen, and must provide clear, sharp images in order to ensure readability of captions.”

    The US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District is now investigating my complaint. Readers should note that filing a complaint with DOJ under the ADA is easy, can be done online and the complainant’s identity can be kept confidential.

    Our experience in newer cinemas is usually better and often wonderful. Your readers should seek out Landmark Cinemas, which provide hearing loops in addition to caption devices. And other “top tier” cinemas such as CineBistro and Alamo Chart House, where caption devices screw solidly into cupholders.

    YES, speak up! YES, don’t accept lame excuses! And KNOW YOUR RIGHTS UNDER LAW!

  7. I absolutely wanted to see The Return of Mary Poppins on the big screen and my local theater has captioning devices in all of their auditoriums. Not long after the start of the movie, I began getting low battery messages so I had to run out to the customer service desk and they gave me another device which fortunately worked fine. I have never been able to get the goose neck base to stay in the holder so end up just holding it – I think they are too heavy to support. All that said, I loved the movie and consider the aggravation minor.

  8. Progress is slow, but I am finding that over time, theaters are providing better maintained devices. I live in Los Angeles and the majority of captioning equipment is in the form of the gooseneck devices which have to be jammed into the cupholders and do often fall out or move around. Sometimes, I have to hold mine up manually, but I love going to the movies, so for me it is worth it. Pacific Theatres stands out for having (mostly) well maintained captioning equipment.

  9. Shari, was so glad you posted this ! I am a movie lover and have always enjoyed going to the movies , and we’ve come a long way from trying to find a movie that was captioned to now being able to see any movie with captions with those great caption devices that are now readily available in mostly all AMC theaters and other small theater chains . So I praise AMC for supporting the hearing impaired communities. However , there are issues with those caption devices and I have experienced ALL the situations you have mentioned with great frustration and annoyance . I have also personally praised the theater when it worked great and also complained when it didn’t, but the issues are rarely addressed. I have thought about contacting AMCs corporate offices . Maybe in future , the theater seats will come with pop up screens with captions !

  10. While captioning is helpful, it’s monologue at best. One still needs to hear to enjoy the dynamics of sound. Advocate for hearing loops and telecoils in every hearing aid/implant. The hearing loop/telecoil combination cannot be matched by any other technology.

    • And, that, I’m afraid, is why I watch films on my TV or iPad. I want hear the dialogue and other environmental information.
      Using that gooseneck thing (if it even works and doesn’t fall on the floor) is beyond annoying and inefficient, at best.

      At home, I can control volume….can pause, rewibf, fast forward and not have to put up with people talking, rustling bags and getting gum on my shoe.

  11. My local theater provides CC glasses that the viewer wears & they display the captions directly in front of your eyeballs LOL I do love these, but sometimes even they have a tendency to cut in/out during the movie, particularly if they haven’t been charged enough, etc…It’s frustrating when this happens because I have to leave the movie to get a new pair at the customer service desk.
    I appreciate this article!! I will be working more closely with the theater in the future in regards to this!

  12. This has nothing to do with today’s topic, but I did not find another way to contact you and need help. I just lost my hearing aids. Insurance company says that is not covered. Do you or your readers have suggestions for filing a claim? I discovered the loss after leaving a hotel. Last saw them on the table in my hotel room. Hotel was no help when I called them. Any advice to cover the expense of new hearing aids?

  13. I have enough remaining hearing that I don’t need closed captioning but I do need to use the Fidelio device offered by Canadian Cineplex theaters and have it programmed to the HH (Hard of Hearing) setting (not the narrative description track used by visually impaired people.) When the Fidelio device is working as it is supposed to, it plays an enhanced audio track directly through my hearing aids. It is fantastic and I can easily understand all the dialogue. Unfortunately, the system in our local theater is broken about half the time. It’s very frustrating because there is no way to tell if it is working until the main feature begins. Very few of the pre-show items have Fidelio tracks. If it fails to come on for the Main Feature, I have to leave the auditorium, thereby missing the beginning of the movie, and find a staff person to address the issue. Sometimes, they can get it working by rebooting the main Fidelio computer. Sometimes they can fix it by giving me a different Fidelio receiver. Sometimes they can’t fix it at all and I have to leave the theater. The staff is always nice and tries to be helpful. But even if they fix it, I’ve missed the first 10-15 mins of the movie. The main ticket taker at this theater is visually impaired and has to use eSight Electronic Glasses to perform his work. He is obviously sensitive to assistive technology issues and always tries to help. The theater manager also tries to help. It seems to me that the equipment is probably not used enough and nobody checks or maintains it on a regular basis. I have occasionally contacted Cineplex’s main office when I get especially frustrated with a failure. They always offer coupons for another movie but that is not the point. What bothers me is the frustration of going to the theater, sitting down and waiting through the pre-show, only to find out Fidelio is not working that day. Or alternatively, missing the first part of the movie. Maybe if the system didn’t help so much when it is working, I wouldn’t find it as frustrating when it’s broken. My guess is that the Fidelio system just needs more attention on an on-going basis to ensure it will work when a theater patron needs it. I feel a bit ambivalent about complaining because at least Cineplex is trying by having installed the system in the first place.

    • The Fidelio system is a radio wave system similar to FM. I assume that the direct to the hearing aid listening is accomplished via a neckloop attached to the Fidelio receiver and then picked up by the hearing aid telecoil.
      The Cineplex Theatre information advises that the movie track itself determines if Fidelio sound is available. That would explain why the pre-show items (and some movies) don’t provide sound.
      Hearing loop technology also connects directly with the hearing aid and is not dependent upon the movie track. All amplified/projected sound is available to the audience. It’s also easier to verify that it’s operational.
      Advocate for hearing loops, the better hearing solution!

    • I am glad you found a system that you like. I think you should share the feedback with them in a positive way — how much you love the system, but that sometimes it doesn’t work as well as it should. Is there more maintenance they could be doing? If we don’t speak up, nothing will change. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    • That’s why I watch films in the comfort of my home.
      It ain’t worth the hassle of potentially faulty equipment.
      Why bother?

      It just ain’t worth it.

      The hearing world doesn’t get it.

      Shari..,I think it would be great if you could do a spot, on CBS SUBDAY MORNING magazine show, or other network shows.

      You’re the best advocate!

      How ‘bout it?

  14. After reading this I did a quick google search to see if such devices were available here in the UK. They seem few and far between. Not many Cinemas do seem to have them and from what I have read they have the same technical problems you have described. Think my view is that they should show more films with subtitles on the screen rather than having to have second best.

    Please keep your blogs coming Shari I always look forward to reading them.

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