Going to the movies is central part of mainstream American life, with figures from the Motion Picture Association of America showing that more than 200 million people took in a flick last year. 

But a lawsuit filed in Alameda Superior Court in California claims the Cinemark movie chain -- the third largest in the country -- discriminates against the deaf and hard of hearing communities by failing to provide any captioned movies at its theaters in Alameda County.

The suit was brought by The Association of Late-Deafened Adults (ALDA) on behalf of its members with hearing loss, and two individual plaintiffs.  The plaintiffs are represented by Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), a non-profit disability rights firm headquartered in Berkeley, California, that specializes in high-impact cases on behalf of people with disabilities.

Movie captioning

The most common form of movie captioning technology is the Rear Window Captioning system.  An LED screen is mounted in the back of a theater that displays captioned dialogue onto small reflective plastic panels provided by movie theaters to deaf and hard of hearing patrons.  Only people with the reflective screens can see the captions, which they can adjust to superimpose on the screen. 

Approximately 85 percent of first-run movies are captioned and compatible with the Rear Window system when they arrive at theaters "in the can."  The only cost to movie theaters is the one-time installation of captioning equipment, which costs approximately $10,000.  

Hearing loss and age

Approximately 36 million American adults report some degree of hearing loss, according to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders.  Hearing loss increases with age: 18 percent of adults 45-64 years old, 30 percent of adults 65-74 years old, and 47 percent of adults 75 years old or older have a hearing impairment.

The correlation between aging and hearing loss is well established.  The number of adults with hearing loss is expected to increase significantly as the baby boomer generation continues to age.

Unfairness charged

"We just want the opportunity to go to the movies with our friends and family like everybody else," explains Rick Rutherford who lives in El Cerrito.  "By failing to screen captioned films, movie theaters like Cinemark are denying me an experience I thoroughly enjoyed before the onset of hearing loss."

"The theaters' unwillingness to screen captioned films is short-sighted, particularly as the hearing loss community continues to grow," says Kevin Knestrick, an attorney representing the Plaintiffs. "The technology is readily available and financially, it is a drop in the bucket for theater chains like Cinemark to provide this service for men, women, and children with hearing loss."

Linda Drattell, a plaintiff in the case, says "It's disappointing to read reports of blockbuster holiday weekends with films like 'Harry Potter'' and 'Unstoppable,' and I can't go because Cinemark refuses to provide captioning."

The lawsuit alleges violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and California's anti-discrimination statutes, the Unruh Civil Rights Act and Disabled Persons Act.