A Maryland deaf community gets closer to movie accessibility

As the liaison between the Frederick, Md., deaf community and Westview Cinemas, Nat Balsley, who is deaf, said that he works to make sure open captioning is accessible to younger generations, like his son, Ryland, who is also deaf. (Graham Cullen/The Frederick News-Post via AP)

Frederick — It wasn't until they moved to Frederick that Trudy Suggs and her family could go to the movies.

While it had a "deaf school and sizable deaf community," the "small town" in Minnesota that Suggs lived in did not have a movie theater that provided any captioning services for people who are deaf like herself, her husband and their four kids.


"So when we came to Frederick and learned that there were both open-captioned (screenings) and glasses available, we were happy because now we could go see the newest films," Suggs wrote in an email.

While that movie theater in Minnesota didn't comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Westview Regal Cinemas does.


The ADA requires movie theaters to provide closed captioning devices for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, such as glasses that show captions in the lens or screens that attach to the seat.

In addition to closed captioning devices, the Westview Regal also provides open captioned screenings, which is when captions are shown on the big screen, even though it's not required by law. It's one of two Regal theaters in the state to do so, according to the Regal Cinemas website.

Nat Balsley, the unofficial liaison between the Frederick deaf community and Westview Regal, finds the relationship between the two "very unique."

Each week, Balsley, who is deaf, sends requests for open caption screenings of films that are already in theaters. Once Westview sets the showtimes, he notifies the deaf community through the Frederick Deaf Moviegoers Facebook group and newsletters.

On blockbuster opening weekends, the open captioning screenings are typically "packed," Balsley said. Screenings held after an opening weekend or for smaller films typically have about 20 to 30 people, he added.

The relationship is not without its bumps, though.

For example, when "Avengers: Endgame" came out, Balsley said that he requested showings for it, but the theater said that they could not offer an open captioned screening because a large number of tickets had already been sold for the caption-less screenings.

"And they wouldn't convert a regular screening that people bought tickets for to an open-captioned screening in fear of people objecting to the words on the screen," he said.


Westview eventually added extra screenings of the film with open captions, "which honestly is a rarity," Balsley said.

Additionally, while Westview provides open captioned screenings several times a week, they provide only one a day, Balsley said.

"The biggest downside, if anything, is that deaf people can't watch an open-captioned film at their own discretion," Balsley said.

While Westview has generally been willing to provide open captioning, Balsley made the point that other deaf communities don't have the same kind of relationship with their own theaters.

When open captioning is not available or provided, deaf people go to caption-less screenings and use the individual closed captioning devices provided by the theater.

At first, Suggs wrote she and her family liked these devices. "But we quickly came to hate the glasses," she wrote in an email.


Suggs wrote that the glasses are dirty, uncomfortable and hard to use. She also worries that the sign-out system is not secure.

"A third (of the) time it worked fine, a third (of the) time it wouldn't even show the captions when the movie came on," Jon Craig, of Frederick, wrote over text. "Then the other times — the worst: stopping right in the middle of a climactic scene!"

Movie theaters with 15 digital film theaters, including Westview Regal, need to have at least eight captioning devices in order to comply with the ADA.

Sometimes, when Suggs and her family go to the movies, all of the captioning glasses have already been checked out, leaving them to "either watch without the glasses or leave."

Richard Grover, Regal's vice president of communications, said Suggs' concerns will be addressed.

"With the large deaf community in the area, we will look to review device usage and increase the number available at the theater while making sure all devices work and are sanitized correctly," Grover said.


Deaf communities throughout the country have been fighting for open captioning in their local theaters, including through an online petition to make all movie theaters across the country legally obligated to regularly provide open captioning.

Because "most of the time, our requests in other cities just fall on deaf ears (pun intended) and the requesters don't hear back from corporate," Balsley wrote.

In 2015, Hawaii passed a law requiring movie theaters to provide open captioned screenings at least twice per week, in addition to the closed captioning required under the ADA, according to Hawaii News Now, making it the first state in the U.S. to do so.

As of 2019, when the law was renewed, Hawaii was still the only state with open captioning laws, as per The Daily Moth.

“We deserve equal access to films as the rest of the moviegoers,” Balsley wrote in a text message. “The deaf community shouldn’t be dealing with unreliable and uncomfortable technology to be granted an enjoyable movie watching experience.”