July 4, 2014 at 1:00 am

Movie theater chains make upgrades to help blind, deaf patrons

Mike Mihalich, owner of MJR Digital Cinemas, shows off special seats for people with disabilities. He's in the process of adding Fidelio and CaptiView systems for the visually and hearing impaired in the chain's nine local theaters. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)

For Shayna Smith, going to a movie is a challenging, often frustrating proposition.

Smith, who is partially blind, usually sits in the front row of the theater, where she can see some of what’s happening onscreen. When she can’t follow the action, she asks her accompanying husband to fill in the blanks. She wishes she didn’t have to.

“I try not to rely on him as much as other people might think I should,” said Smith, an assistive technology specialist at the Disability Network Wayne County-Detroit. “I try to be as independent as I possibly can. And if I can’t be independent, it’s a problem. It’s a big problem for me.”

Fortunately for Smith and other Metro Detroiters with visual or hearing impairments, some area theater chains are beginning to add or upgrade services to make moviegoing more accessible. Among the devices for the visually impaired is Fidelio, a wireless headset that broadcasts a description of the action onscreen. The hearing impaired can use CaptiView, a small, portable screen that displays closed captions and can be clipped to a seat cupholder.

Bloomfield Hills-based MJR Digital Cinemas and Troy-based Emagine Entertainment have installed brand-new described video or closed caption services at select locations, and both chains plan to roll new technologies to all locations this year.

MJR first installed new captioning and description technologies at its 3-year-old Westland location and continued that rollout during a major renovation of MJR’s Southgate theater this year, said owner Mike Mihalich.

“It’s not uncommon on a Friday or Saturday night or Sunday afternoon where there’s 20 to 30 units in use at a time on the prime shows,” Mihalich said. “I said, ‘Well, let’s do it everywhere. One at a time.’ ”

By Mihalich’s own admission, the new technologies represent a major improvement over MJR’s previous accommodations for impaired patrons. The chain formerly offered a more rudimentary system for the hearing impaired.

“It was OK, but it was marginal at best,” Mihalich said.

Long-gestating federal legislation on theater services for the visually and hearing impaired is providing an additional incentive for theater owners. Emagine vice president Gary Butske Jr. said his chain will introduce new CaptiView devices at all locations this year, replacing older hearing impaired transmitters.

He said use of the service is “pretty infrequent,” but the chain wishes to ensure accessibility to all customers — and to comply with the law. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice released a notice of proposed rulemaking to establish requirements for captioning and description services in cinemas. The path forward has been slow; a Senate hearing on the subject convened last year, but no legislation has passed.

“We just prefer to be on the proactive side of it,” Butske said.

The technological improvements represent a major step forward for the hearing and visually impaired, but there is still a long way to go. Statistics cited by National Association of Theatre Owners President John Fithian at last year’s Senate hearing suggested that just over half of the nation’s digital cinema screens are equipped for captioning and described video devices.

“There’s a long way to go,” said Michele McGowen, a program manager at Disability Network Michigan. “Most theaters don’t serve people who have hearing loss, or who are deaf, or who are visually impaired, very well at all.”

For some theaters, financial considerations may make accessibility prohibitives. New technologies at MJR run about $30,000 per theater, Mihalich said. Butske said the new improvements at Emagine do not represent “a considerable expense.”

“We’re always looking at adding value or putting capital expenditures back into the building so it keeps things fresh,” Butske said.

MJR and Emagine are among the larger regionally owned chains, with nine and seven theaters, respectively. For smaller chains such as Farmington-based Phoenix Theatres, captioning and description can eat up a bigger chunk of the budget. Phoenix offers a closed captioning service, but no described video.

Slowly evolving technology can make a major difference for a theatergoer like Smith. She hastened to note that her situation is still easier than someone who is totally blind; they are left in the dark at many theaters.

“I do have a little bit of sight,” Smith said. “But with that being said, it’s still really, really hard.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.