Captions cap off movie outing

A deaf teen wants more screens to show closed-captioned films. A new cinema will add one.

Published May 7, 2007

WESLEY CHAPEL - Amber Harris loves the movies.

About a month ago, she went to watch the comedy, Wild Hogs. As the images flickered on the screen, the 17-year-old girl and her boyfriend, Jon Jacobs, could see the other people in the audience rocking back and forth in laughter. Enjoying themselves. Following every joke.

"I know it's funny, but I really couldn't laugh at it because I didn't understand what they're saying, " Amber would later recall. "I was really mad."

Amber cannot hear.

In medical terms, the Land O'Lakes High School girl is "profoundly deaf."

She loves going to the movies, but it can be an ordeal.

For starters, when she buys a ticket, she has to write down which movie she wants to see. That's not always a pleasant experience.

"Once, I asked for a piece of paper, " Amber said, speaking in sign language through an interpreter, her cousin Jeanie Lake. "The woman at the counter looked at me like I was crazy. She thought I had an attitude."

Jon's also hard of hearing, though he is not profoundly deaf.

Within 40 minutes of their Wesley Chapel homes, the only cinema that provides assistance for the deaf is the AMC Veterans Expressway 24 in Tampa.

Even then, it offers that service in only one auditorium, which means, for her, that the multiplex might as well be called AMC Veterans Expressway 1.

Here's where Cobb Theatres, the cinema operator building a new 16-screen multiplex in Wesley Chapel, stepped in.

* * *

Two weeks ago, Jeremy Welman, Cobb's chief operating officer, got an e-mail from Amber's mother, Pam Teeling.

"My daughter was actually stillborn and they worked on her for 15 minutes and the lack of oxygen to her brain is what caused her hearing loss, " Pam wrote. "I have spoken with my daughter about the new theatre being built in Wesley Chapel and she asked me if it would have access to 'closed caption' and I told her I would try and find out."

"She asked if I could please be her voice, so that is why I'm writing you."

Three hours later, Welman replied.

Cobb had already thought of it. Welman later told the Pasco Times that the theater had other hearing-impaired folks come to them.

In November, they began looking into providing closed-captioning. By January, they got the experiment going at their theaters in Lakeland and Merritt Island.

"We will also employ this technology at our new facility at Wesley Chapel, " Welman told Teeling.

Closed captioning consists of subtitles projected onto a personal screen, shaped like a flexible hockey stick, that a deaf person places into the cupholder of his or her seat.

Cobb will probably put the system on "at least one, and possibly two screens" in Wesley Chapel when it opens next year.

Amber wants more. Welman said he sympathizes, but he pointed out that only two-thirds of movie studios actually provide closed-captioned films.

"Even if every auditorium had the service, not every film would be available in that format, " he said. "We're learning more as we go along."

But he promised they would turn over films at Wesley Chapel more frequently, "every week or every other week, " to accommodate the hearing-impaired.

* * *

Amber's challenges are about more than a frustrating trip to the movies.

She's just wading into life's battles.

She moved back to central Pasco last year, determined to rejoin her family.

Before that, she had been enrolled at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, coming home only on weekends.

At Land O'Lakes High School, she's one among eight hard-of-hearing kids who have chosen to be "mainstreamed." This means she joins other kids in regular classes, with an interpreter by her side.

It's Amber's dream to have closed captioning for every screen in every cinema.

It's only fair, she said.

"Amber's a very independent person, " her mother said. "There's not going to be anything holding her back. She makes her point known."

It might help that Amber plans to be a lawyer.

"I like to argue, " she said.

Her family and Jon laugh when she says this, but they're not mocking her. In their laughter is the sound of faith.

Movie studio chiefs, you have been warned.

Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at 813 909-4613 or cyap@sptimes.com.