Sounds of Silence

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.

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.

"The problem is that when you ask the distributors, they blame it on the producers, and when you ask the producers, they blame it on the distributors," Rob Todd says.

AMC executives did not return calls for comment. Rosen, who is working with him on that case, says, "When we first filed the lawsuit, the AMC Dunvale theater was playing several captioned movies, and they've since stopped."

Even though they are decades apart in age, Robert Todd and Malisa Janes both rely on high-tech advances to help them try to hear again.

Janes earned her doctorate from the Rehabilitation Institute of Southern Illinois University and was an adjunct professor there. She was 55 when she lost nearly all her hearing within two weeks of a bout with pneumonia. In the small town of Carbondale, Janes says, she felt like she became an island.

"What do you do when you go deaf? I couldn't go to church because I couldn't hear the sermon," she says. "I couldn't go to the movies or even watch TV." She talks about adapting to life with her service dog Miss Annie, a Welsh corgi that Janes says shares her love of fine arts.

"When we go to the ballet she sits in the aisle where she can watch. At the opera she hides under my seat."

But on this recent day, Janes is jubilant about a major breakthrough: She's learning to hear again with a cochlear implant, a magnetic device positioned above the ear that usually enables even those with profound deafness to experience at least moderate hearing.

She turns her head to show where the plate has been inserted and touches the magnetic earpiece to her head. While she does this back and forth she chants, "I can hear, now I can't. I can hear, now I can't."

Todd has made remarkable progress since he received a similar implant in the fifth grade. He and Janes explain that it's the little sounds that make life enjoyable -- things like water running or the chirping of birds.

"During the day little sounds clue you to the most enjoyable things," Janes says.

However, restoring partial hearing will take time. Theater fan Janes explains that she needs to learn to recognize the sound of words all over again -- or The Sound of Music, for that matter. "I've felt like a little kid all day," she says. "My brain has to learn to hear all over."

In the meantime, she plans to be back in her seat at the Hobby for the upcoming TUTS production of My Fair Lady, applauding the cast even while complaining.

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