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Nanci Linke-Ellis on Captioning

Nanci Linke-Ellis on Captioning

January 2010

Editor: You probably know Nanci Linke-Ellis as the inspiration behind Insight Cinema, but you may not be as aware of some of the other things she’s involved in. We were thrilled to have her speak to our HLAA group this month, and I’m happy to share her thoughts with our readers. Here’s Nanci!


Nanci began by recalling her long involvement in captioning advocacy, dating back to 1993, when she first started making captioned films available. At that time, they had one captioned film which they showed once a year – a humble beginning, to be sure. But a beginning it was, and here captioning efforts took off from there!

She discussed the three analog caption formats that are currently available:

(1) Open Captions – these are captions that are as much part of the film as the movie images being displayed. As an integral part of the film, they are always on, and can no more be removed than the trees or buildings that are part of the image.

(2) DTS Captions – This system provides the captions on a separate disc that is synched to the movie. The captions appear on the lower part of the screen, and can be displayed only when someone requests them.

(2) Rear Window Captions – This system requires the user to check out a plastic “screen” which is attached via a gooseneck to a base that sits in the cupholder. The captions are displayed in reverse on the back wall, and the viewer views them by reflection on the plastic “screen”. This system has the advantage that the captions are only visible to people who need them, so it is much easier to convince theaters to make captions available for every showing of a particular movie.

There are currently about 700 screens showing captioned films, and about 400 captioned films available annually. These numbers represent a tiny fraction of the movies and screens available to folks who do not require captioning. There are around 37,000 movie screens in the US.

Nanci is currently working with a company to come up with a reasonable and accessible solution that would allow a person to have captioning for any showing in any theater at any time! The technology involves eyewear onto which the captions are projected. Work on this technology began in 2004, and it will hopefully become available this year.

Nanci mentioned two lawsuits that have been in the news lately and that seem to bode well for more widely available captioning.

The first is Harkins vs Arizona, which is currently before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is the final appeal before a case reaches the Supreme Court. Oral arguments were presented last week and the comments and questions of the judges appeared to indicate considerable support for the position that the Harkins theaters are required to provide captioning.

The second case is in the state of Washington and involves John Waldo and his Wash-CAP organization. John has been very successful in convincing organizations to provide captioning without having to resort to a trial, and there’s hope that this case can be settled in a similar manner.

Nanci then turned her attention to a discussion of captioning for live theater. She pointed out that the legal situation is more settled for captioning of live theater; a consumer can get captioning for a live performance by requesting it, because the legal issues have already been resolved. [Ed.: This doesn’t necessarily mean that the theater will readily agree to provide captions when a person asks. Like so many other disability rights, this one is often only enforced when a consumer is willing to battle for it.] Nanci pointed out that a theater may choose to provide a single captioned performance, and that it may not be the performance that the consumer originally requested.

Nanci and her business partner, Vicki, have done captioned theater in several locations throughout the Western US. In each case they have received very positive comments and significant interest from many audience members who don’t have hearing loss.

Nanci mentioned an organization called the Theatre Development Fund (www.tdf.org) that assists theaters that are interested in providing captioning and other accessibility services. She also talked about the Caption Coalition (www.c2net.org/), which has been providing theater captioning on the east coast for some time.

One of the roadblocks to more live theater captioning is the special equipment required and the lack of trained captionists.

Nanci mentioned a great organization called COAT (the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology – www.coataccess.org) that is working to ensure that technology will remain accessible as it progresses. They are the major proponents of H.R. 3101, The Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2009, which requires such accessibility.

She also talked about the CaptionFish website (www.captionfish.com), which locates captioned movies for the location you provide, and about the three young deaf techies who created and operate the site!

Q. I’m concerned with the growing complexity of technology and the difficulty that people often have with it. What is being done to ensure that seniors and people with disabilities will be able to manipulate whatever technological solutions are developed?
A. That’s a real concern and something that people have to keep in mind. The folks who are developing eyeware for captioning applications are very aware of this.

Q. How about cost? Will the “captioning glasses” be expensive?
A. I don’t have the numbers available, but this is not something that is being developed from scratch. The glasses are being adapted from something the military has been using for a long time. So much of the development work is already done.