Company/Organization Profiles | Local Industry | Theatres

Sweet Sound of Accessibility

1 Nov , 2007  

Written by Nancy L. Babine | Posted by:

The Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Film Club at the Coolidge Corner Theatre makes movies accessible to people with hearing loss.
Imagine never having the experience of sitting with an audience in a dark theater, sharing the blood chilling fright of a thriller or the belly-busting guffaws of a comedy. Consider never tumbling blissfully into the warm fuzzies of nostalgia or swallowing back the lump in your throat from old film classics like It’s A Wonderful Life or The Miracle Worker.

Welcome to the world of 35 million Deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans, for whom watching a movie, an activity most of us take for granted, can be an exercise in frustration and futility.  But for Jamaica Plain resident Ginny Mazur, it was a challenge. Determined to find a way to make cinema more accessible to the Deaf and hard-of-hearing, Mazur rolled up her sleeves.

Mazur, whose hearing disability is described as late-deafened — hearing loss that occurs after the development of speech and language — won’t allow her enthusiasm for watching films to be dampened.  “I love the visual feast, the story,” she said.  “I have my whole life.”  But in most theaters there are few accommodations for people with hearing problems, and though captioning is required on DVDs produced in the past decade, scores of beloved old favorites are not available with captioning.  Mazur finds it an irony that she can go to a movie theater and enjoy a foreign film with English subtitles, but can’t do the same with an English-speaking film.

Over the years, Mazur has frequently indulged her love for film at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline.  For some time, the two main screening rooms at the Coolidge had been equipped with infrared hearing devices that transmit a signal through FM airwaves.  A hard-of-hearing person would hear the dialogue and sound amplified through headphones.  In the two smaller screening rooms, however, where the Coolidge presents some of its more eclectic programming, there was no adaptive equipment, leaving those rooms completely inaccessible to people with hearing challenges.

In the residential program for seniors where Mazur works, about half of her clients have some hearing loss.  After attending a film series the Coolidge presents for the elderly, some of them informed her they were having difficulty hearing through the headphones in one of the main screening rooms.  She investigated and discovered the transmission of the signal was uneven, clear in certain sections of the room, scratchy in others.  Hoping to remedy the problem, she approached the general manager of the Coolidge, Joe Zina, in the lobby after a movie one night.

Though Mazur didn’t know it at the time, Zina shares her commitment to make the arts accessible to all.  “That’s our mission, to entertain, and to entertain everybody,” he said.  “We’re constantly learning that we can serve more people, the elderly, the handicapped, the Deaf.  I’m hopefully reaching out to as many people as I can.”  Programs at the Coolidge aimed toward an underserved audience include: $3 Senior Matinee, Box Office Babies (screenings to which parents are invited to bring infants under a year-old), and educational outreach programs for teens.  To provide full access to all four screening rooms for people with physical challenges, elevators were recently installed.

Zina had no idea the assistive listening system wasn’t working effectively.  A dialogue began between him and Mazur.  She linked Zina with Dr. Sandy Cleveland and the Boston Guild for the Hard-of-Hearing at Northeastern University, who volunteered to do the labor of installing a wireless loop system in the two smaller screening rooms.  This consists of a wire that runs around the perimeter of the room and is connected to the sound source.  People with T-coil (telecoil) hearing aids pick up the signal by switching on their T-switch.  For those without T-coils, headphones with receivers are available free-of-charge at the box office. 

The two main screening rooms were upgraded, as well.  The infrared system was replaced with an FM broadcast assistive listening system.  With this technology, a person with a T-coil hearing aid will use a neckloop and FM receiver, available at the box office.  For those without T-coils, headphones with FM are provided.


Mira Nair’s The Namesake is set for January.

Once Zina and Mazur were working together on the technological upgrades for the theater, they joined forces with some members of the Greater Boston Chapter of Hearing Loss Association of America, to consider measures to expand their outreach to the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

Around the same time, Zina received a letter from the Massachusetts Commissioner for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing, who was looking for organizations to find ways to bring programming for people with hearing limitations.  It was from these seemingly synchronistic occurrences the idea for a Film Club evolved, with the goal of encouraging the Deaf and hard-of-hearing to come to the movies.  “A lot of people had given up years ago,” Mazur said.  “That’s what got us thinking about forming a club.”

Though the term “club” might evoke thoughts of membership rosters, yearly dues and bylaws, the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Film Club is purely and simply a gathering of people on the fourth Wednesday of each month to watch a film together in the 45-seat screening room at the Coolidge.  There are no requirements or expectations, other than the desire to enjoy a movie. The films run the gamut of genres, documentaries and features, contemporary and classics.  All films are shown on DVD with captioning.

The films are not restricted to those with themes or characters related to deafness and hearing loss, although many films do address those issues.  In September, the club screened Through Deaf Eyes, produced for PBS by Florentine Films/Hott Productions of western Massachusetts (and WETA, Washington DC in association with Gallaudet University).  The documentary explores 200 years of life in America for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing, and includes the work of six Deaf filmmakers.  Scheduled for November and December are Johnny Belinda, which was the first American movie to portray a heroic Deaf character, and It’s a Wonderful Life.

Though the club doesn’t sponsor activities other than the screenings, it’s not unusual for people to gather in local eateries after the film.  One gentleman, a regular attendee, loves to invite everybody to join him at JP Licks, where he initiates a discussion of the film in American Sign Language (ASL).  Mazur recalled being encouraged by the positive response to the club one recent evening, when, en route to the monthly screening she passed three different groups heading towards the Coolidge, all signing.  “I said, it’s happening!  People are coming!”

A planning committee meets twice a year to brainstorm and to select the films.  Mazur hopes to involve more people from the Deaf community in the planning.  To make the meeting accessible for as many people as possible, they have requested a CART (Communications Access Realtime Translator) reporter from the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing for their November planning meeting.  A CART reporter transcribes spoken words into a stenotype machine; the written words are then displayed on a screen.

Having recently passed the one-year mark, Mazur is delighted to have a venue where she and others with hearing challenges can enjoy watching a movie together.  “Renting a DVD, it’s different from the social experience of coming together, coming to the theater,” she said.  “It feels so good to be able to do that.”  Mazur and Zina describe the Film Club as a “work in progress.”  With no model upon which the club is based, they are learning as they go how best to serve their clientele.

Their main goal for the upcoming year is to spread the word about the club to the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community.  Outreach has been challenging, especially since there is only one screening each month, though Zina hopes to increase that in the future.  

“Reaching the audience is very difficult for us,” he said.  “They’re not looking for this sort of thing.  They don’t expect it.”

He credits Mazur with being the inspiration and driving force for the Film Club.  “People like Ginny are helping educate.  It’s very difficult to understand what’s on the other side of disabilities,” he said.  “You need people to guide you through the process.”

Mazur hopes the program will serve as a template for other organizations that are trying to expand their accessibility.  Her vision for the Film Club is for it to become a cultural gathering place, where in addition to screenings, there will be various programs related to deafness and hearing loss: lectures, performances of Deaf artists, forums with writers and poets.  And Mazur has another vision, a vision of grand magnitude.  “That I could go to any movie and there would be a way to have a caption.  That would be my dream,” she said.  “That’s my hope for the world.”

The Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Film Club screenings are on the fourth Wednesday of every month at 7 pm at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, MA. More information can be found at www.coolidge.org/hearing.


The Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Film Club screenings are on the fourth Wednesday of every month at 7 pm at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, MA. More information can be found at www.coolidge.org/hearing.