Sounds of Silence

A deaf activist says the Hobby doesn't want to hear her complaints

As the daughter of an actor, Malisa Janes tells of a nearly lifelong love of the theater. She says she moved from Illinois to Houston eight years ago because of the Bayou City's impressive array of theatrical productions and performance halls.

So when the $92 million Hobby Center for the Performing Arts opened last year, Janes had already paid more than $1,000 for two season tickets in the Patron Section of Theatre Under the Stars. She tells of settling into her seat in the impressive new performance hall -- and having her delight almost instantly turn into a season of discontent, if not outright disgust.

Like other deaf ticket holders, Janes relies on captioning bars -- electronic message-type boards that flash the words from the stage to the audience -- to follow the dialogue and lyrics. At the Hobby, she claims the captioning bar is so poorly positioned that it is virtually useless to many of the hearing-impaired patrons. And Janes is even more irate because she says she conferred with theater officials months before the opening, to make doubly certain that the deaf would be able to enjoy the theater.

Janes says she moved to Houston to enjoy the fine arts offered here.
Monica Fuentes
Janes says she moved to Houston to enjoy the fine arts offered here.

By all indications, Houston's Theater District institutions are keenly interested in bringing fine arts to the disabled community. Representatives of major performance halls explain that they provide the basic equipment for the hearing-impaired, the captioning bars and headset-type audio enhancers that repeat the words from the stage. They explain that the individual performance groups that lease the halls (TUTS leases the Hobby Center) are responsible for making sure that the special devices are adequate. Some companies even stage special performances for the blind and hearing-impaired. Alley Theatre representative MaryScott Hagle, for example, says that for at least the past five years, the theater has offered two showings of every major stage production that include captioning, American Sign Language translations and audio descriptions.

"We have a growing audience for guests who are hearing-impaired," says Hagle, the Alley's director of education and community outreach. Society for the Performing Arts reports offering comparable services, but the patrons need to ask for these services when purchasing tickets.

Janes, who is a consultant on compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, applauds the actions of other performance centers toward the hearing-impaired. Her friend, attorney Marian Rosen, says some of the best captioning bars are at centers that host foreign-language operas, where all patrons can follow the English translations on the electronic displays.

The Hobby Center is proud of its accommodations for the handicapped. Officials say they fully comply with the regulations of the ADA and even designed state-of-the-art curb ramps for wheelchairs.

Janes says her dispute goes back to six months prior to the Hobby's opening, when she toured the center and noticed crews installing the bars to the left of the stage and high above it. She began warning the Hobby and TUTS about the potential problem, but Rosen says so far TUTS officials have given lip service and no results. Now Janes and Rosen are saying the theater violates provisions for accessibility under the ADA.

John Breckenridge, chief operating officer for TUTS, concedes that the viewing of the bars may be better from the left side of the performance hall, although he insists they can be seen by all sections. Janes could have solved her problem by relocating her seats, officials say. Breckenridge says that pleasing Janes at this point -- presumably by moving the bar so she can easily view it -- could cause problems for other deaf patrons.

The biggest argument put forth by TUTS and the Hobby is basic: Janes is the only one who has made a fuss, with the exception of one other patron. "We moved him to another seat," Breckenridge says. "As far as I know, he's satisfied."

Janes says the number of complaints doesn't matter.

"When I speak with TUTS, they keep saying, 'You're the only one calling me with the problem,' " Janes says. "I say, 'Did people with wheelchairs have to call and say put in ramps?' " There needs to be accessibility to all people in all areas."

Janes does have one ally in her fight with the Hobby. Robert Todd, the 15-year-old son of former Houston city councilman Rob Todd, lost his hearing after a meningitis infection when he was nine months old.

Robert Todd says he enjoyed seeing The Wizard of Oz at the Hobby Center. However, he also admits that seeing is all he enjoyed at that theater. About the captioning bars during that performance, he says, "There's one to the side and one way up, and they shut down in the middle of it." He flicks his fingers back and forth to indicate that the bars went out and came back on during the show.

Todd, even as a ninth-grader at Clear Lake High School, has become an activist of sorts for the hearing-impaired in entertainment-related issues. He's the primary plaintiff in an ADA lawsuit filed in federal court by his father in an effort to force movie distributors and producers to provide more captioned films. Among the defendants are AMC Entertainment, Cinemark USA, Inc., Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. and Paramount Pictures. Rob Todd says that, during his city council days, he attended the opening of the Gulfpoint AMC and asked AMC officials why theaters do not include subtitles. The response was that the movies don't arrive at the theater that way.

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