Old Greenbelt Theatre Provides Assistive Devices for the Deaf

By Anna Socrates

Nearly 77 years after the 1938 premiere of “Little Miss Broadway,” Sara Johnston finally understood why Shirley Temple appeals to audiences of all ages. Sara, a long-time Greenbelt resident, is deaf, and going to the movies wasn’t always easy. When the Old Greenbelt Theatre reopened in May 2015, Sara attended the official premiere, a screening of “Little Miss Broadway” that was captioned. The famous movie star gained a new fan now that Sara could read the upbeat song lyrics and Shirley’s optimistic dialogue.

Most viewers are familiar with subtitles—the technology used for foreign films or foreign-language speech in English-language films; for example, the thriller “Our Kind of Traitor” subtitled several minutes of key Russian dialogue. Captions go further because they present in a readable format for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers all significant audio content, such as spoken dialogue, the identity of speakers, and descriptions of significant sound effects and music.

Before the reopening, Caitlin McGrath, the Executive Director of the Old Greenbelt Theatre, attended the Sunday morning Deaf Brunch at the New Deal Cafe to learn from deaf moviegoers what types of assistive technologies would best serve them. Later McGrath met with the Deaf community and the City of Greenbelt to discuss the best option for adaptive and assistive technologies, which the City of Greenbelt funded as part of the Old Greenbelt Theatre’s renovations. As a result of this input, the theater offers several assistive technologies. On Sunday mornings, the regular feature film is almost always presented with open captions that all viewers are able to see on the screen. Barbara White, a deaf movie patron, can now have regular movie dates with her adult hearing daughter Alice, a bonding experience that wasn’t easily available when Alice was a child.

At other times, the theater offers closed-captioning devices known as Rear Window Captioning, which is an individual, seat-located caption reader. The running captions appear backwards on a monitor under the projectionist’s window, but the device’s screen reflects the captions in the correct orientation and visible only to the individual using the device. The third assistive technology is a receiver that amplifies the sound for a hard-of-hearing movie patron. Finally, the theater offers audio descriptive technology, which provides dialogue and descriptive information for the Blind.

The myriad of options at the Old Greenbelt Theatre, especially the open-captioned showings, are a rarity in the region, and deaf patrons from D.C., Maryland, and Virginia can view most, but not all, of the Old Greenbelt Theatre’s films. Though deaf moviegoer Robin Hoerr enjoys movies about other cultures and other countries, he would not have been able to experience “The Music of Strangers,” the documentary about cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the international Silk Road Ensemble, because that film was never captioned. The National Association of the Deaf advocates captioning “all audio and audiovisual material,” but we are still a long way from that goal. Dan Puma, the Old Greenbelt Theatre’s House Manager, explains that although mainstream feature films are almost always captioned, older films, independent films, and documentaries often are not because of the expense of adding captions. A quick Internet search revealed captioning quotes from $3 per minute to $40 per minute, but lower costs do not always guarantee quality.

Another consideration is audience preferences. Almost all deaf patrons prefer open captions, which appear on the screen for everyone to see and benefit from. Open captions also remove the burden from the individual to request the device and adjust the screen. However, some hearing patrons complain that on-screen open captions are intrusive, and McGrath stated that, in some cases, hearing patrons have requested refunds. Movie theaters occupy the untenable position of balancing concern for their bottom line with their desire to provide universal accessibility for all of their patrons.

White, a former staff member at Gallaudet University and advocate for universal accessibility, points out that open captions benefit all of us, not just deaf patrons. Captions can assist children learning to read, aging movie patrons losing their hearing, and people learning English as a second language. My experiences with the theater’s technologies bear this out. I attended an open-captioned screening of “The Free State of Jones” with White and her daughter. The captions clarified much important dialogue I missed on my first viewing of the film, because I couldn’t understand the actors’ thick Southern accents. In contrast, I found the Rear Window device difficult to adjust at the proper height and harder to read. Additionally, the quality of the closed captions for “Genius,” a dialogue-heavy film about author Thomas Wolfe and his editor Max Perkins, was disappointing when some important dialogue did not appear on the reader.

Seeing “The Free State of Jones,” a film carrying a strong message of human dignity and equality, with White also brought home to me that accessibility is really a civil rights issue. Deaf movie patrons want what we all want from our movie experiences, which is to enjoy a film on the big screen with friends, family, and neighbors and partake in a common culture, something that Old Greenbelt Theatre’s assistive technologies, but especially the open captions, make possible for Johnston, Hoerr, and White. Accessibility for the Deaf community goes directly to the mission of the Greenbelt Community Foundation to create an inclusive community for all Greenbelters.


Sponsored by Greenbelt News Review, Paradyme Management, and Beltway Plaza, Explore Your Greenbelt celebrates Greenbelt Community Foundation’s tenth anniversary. This campaign comprises 14 monthly events and activities that will feature organizations that have received GCF funding. All are invited to attend to learn about these organizations and how GCF lives out its mission of “Nourishing all of Greenbelt’s Neighborhoods.”