Why Movies Are So Frustrating for the Hard of Hearing


Hearing loss is an invisible disability. There’s no white cane or wheelchair to tip off others to your condition. Most people would not yell at someone in a wheelchair for blocking the aisle in a supermarket, or at a blind person for accidently stepping in front of them. But every once in a while, I am gobsmacked by rudeness from people who think I’m deliberately trying to annoy them when I’m only trying to hear better.

Even with captioning equipment, headphones, and better technology for the hearing-impaired, movie watching can be tough for those with hearing loss. — Getty Images

The latest happened during my vacation in Florida in a town with many older people. The independent cinema has captioning equipment for those with hearing loss, which it bought several years ago. The system requires viewers to use a bulky device at their seat that has a small screen to display the text. It’s not ideal, and I worry that it may be distracting to others though I’m told it’s visible only from your own seat. Still, it allows the deaf or hard of hearing to follow the dialogue — a critical part of enjoying a movie.

Because it was a chilly day, I decided to go see a movie, The Big Short.

Unfortunately, the captioning equipment was not available. Apparently a part was missing. The manager instead offered me some headphones to use, which I decided to try.

About 15 minutes into the movie, the man behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said furiously, “Take those things off!”

I guess they were too loud, but how am I, a deaf person, supposed to know that? I left the theater, returned the headphones and started to walk out the door. But then I turned around, went back into the theater, tapped the man on the shoulder and said very loudly, “Those are headphones to help me hear. I’m deaf.”

I hope he was humiliated, because I certainly was.

The rudeness, in retrospect, was understandable. It’s the technology that infuriates me. Why do I have to put on heavy, ill-fitting headphones that not only don’t work for me, but can distract people around me? It’s like installing a wheelchair ramp that not only doesn’t get you where you need to go, but blocks the stairs for everyone else.

Captions are better, and the deaf and hard of hearing have been lobbying for them for years. But what the industry has given us is a clunky gooseneck screen that you carry to your seat and fit into the cup holder. Some chains also offer special closed-captioning eyeglasses, which are less intrusive, but if you wear glasses normally the closed-captioning ones have to fit over those. (Open captioning, which displays dialogue on the bottom of the movie screen for all audiences to see, is less common than closed captioning, and also less popular with hearing moviegoers.)

Digital film technology allows closed captions to be an intrinsic part of a movie, and they can be sent automatically to the devices I described above. But why can’t the captions go directly to my smartphone instead? I hear some app developers are exploring the idea. My phone can do just about everything else — streamed captions should be a cinch.

This is an issue on the stage as well. Marlee Matlin, the first deaf actor to receive an Academy Award, has advocated for captioning for years. In fact, you can tweet, email or post to Facebook your support for this letter from Matlin asking for captions and signing to be available on request at any Broadway performance.


by Katherine Bouton, January 19, 2016