S. Ariz. theaters testing equipment for deaf

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GREEN VALLEY, Ariz. (AP) — Movie dates could see a revival for Green Valley residents whose hearing problems have caused them to shun social activities that have become more frustrating than fun.

New sound systems popping up in theaters alongside digital projection systems now required in the industry are luring back at least some of the crowd for whom theater-going was a weekly ritual. Whether up for a romantic evening, break from boredom or an afternoon outing with friends, hard-of-hearing users indicate they're well worth trying.

While sound systems — and hearing abilities — vary, some patrons are finding listening devices now provided at box offices just the thing to kick-start their social life. Many admit that while they love movies, they quit enjoying them in theaters because they couldn't hear the dialogue.

For years, locals implored management at Green Valley's Desert Sky Cinema to provide listening equipment to help them hear, said retired air traffic controller Ben Cleveland, outgoing president of Green Valley's chapter of the Arizona Loss of Hearing Association (ALOHA), a support group for the hearing-impaired. They got differing responses, chiefly relating to cost, but no results.

Theaters in general weren't widely known for hearing accommodations, said ALOHA member Lou Touchette, a retired jet mechanic. Although he and his wife, Linda, whose hearing loss is not as profound, watched films at home and got out occasionally, movie-going grew so disappointing that they avoided the theater for two decades.

But when he learned that Desert Sky installed a new system a couple of months ago, Lou was game to try it and get others to, too, hopeful it'd be the ticket out for those who'd taken to shunning interaction.

At Desert Sky, patrons can now request a captioning reader that mounts in the cupholder and displays dialogue on a 3-by-6-inch screen, headphones connected to an audio receiver box, or for those with telecoil-equipped hearing aids, a neck loop that receives a signal, theater manager Brooke Chesney said. There are also soundtrack and narration modes for the sight-impaired. All are available for free for on-site use with a valid driver license, are wireless and rechargeable.

Novices may be a bit overwhelmed; adjustment is required, Touchette said.

"This is the first time I've been to a movie in 20 years because I absolutely couldn't understand a word," he said. "The sound was so loud, it seemed to make my eardrums rattle."

The speech was so muddled and at times, so rapid, his brain couldn't make sense of the jumble. Touchette's hearing was severely damaged by unprotected exposure to heavy machinery in his younger years. He now gets by with cochlear implants and guidance from Linda, who helps foster group conversation. She's up on the latest films and ready to explore new ventures.

Touchette is a staunch backer of "looping" technology that converts electronically sourced sound into magnetic energy that fills a specially wired room. It works with telecoil-type hearing aids and portable receivers channeled to headsets to supply clearer sound and reduce background noise. He stays busy with ALOHA's initiative to equip Tucson-area facilities, and in June, traveled to Seattle to help launch a similar effort.

For their first foray into the modern-day film world, the Touchettes chose the latest James Bond adventure, "Skyfall" and made a date, soon discovering that little about theaters had changed over time — sights, smells and seating just as they recalled. They excitedly collected the listening devices, arriving early for pointers, eagerly anticipating the big change, sound.

Getting the devices properly adjusted took some doing and patience — arranging the captioning device at the correct height was tricky — but worth the effort, he said. He quickly abandoned the audio receiver for the captioning option, which worked best for him.

"After a few minutes, I got used to it," he said. And he was able to follow a plot again. Afterward, "you don't turn anything off, just pick up the device and take it back to the counter," he said, calling the experience "delightful."

His one regret is that previews of upcoming movies weren't captioned (the devices only work on the movies). One challenge: juggling the devices, drinks and popcorn to the seat without spilling. "Bottom line, I will be back," he said.

The couple has since returned to see "Lincoln," and were just as pleased.

It'll take time for folks to catch on; it hasn't really sunk in that this can help them, Touchette said.

Ready for some time out, other ALOHA members are venturing to Desert Sky and Tucson theaters to test the systems for themselves.

Patience prevailed for Cleveland, who has a t-coil hearing aid, who eventually discovered he could "hear perfectly" with the neck loop, while his wife, Mary, whose hearing loss is more severe, struggled with the experience.

"The first time we went, my device was set up for a different movie in a different auditorium," Ben said. "Mary's wasn't working at all."

Undaunted, they returned another day for a different movie with tips from Touchette. One included punching the "C'' button beneath the caption device to activate it, which worked well for Ben. Mary had opted for a hearing transmitter but finding it of no help, switched to the captioning device.

However, after several tries to adjust it, she slouched to read the captioning at the right height. Still, she stayed for the whole movie.

"Ben and I, when we first moved to town, went to the movies and walked out," she recalled. A bone marrow-transplant survivor, Mary lost her hearing 18 years ago as a side-effect of chemotherapy. Until she got a cochlear implant, she rarely went out.

"It was hard on my neighbors, hard on me," she said. "Really isolating."

Ben commends Desert Sky for adding the equipment, saying without hesitation that he'd come again, and thinks Mary just might.

"I'm glad they made the effort," he said.

His successor at ALOHA, Ebba Andersen, and her sister Doris Gerganoff, thoroughly enjoyed the theater's showing of "Lincoln" last week. Gerganoff, who wears a t-coil hearing aid that adjusts automatically, didn't require captioning to understand dialogue. With hearing loss more profound, Andersen found success with theater headphones, which made the sound "crisp and clear." Her only discomfort was that they were too loose and she kept having to adjust them.

She too wrestled with the twisting neck of the captioning device, but eventually realized she didn't need it. Not the world's biggest movie-goer, Andersen dislikes car crashes and emotional story lines.

"But if there's a comedy, chances are, I would go and see it." Before the new devices, she'd not visited a theater in months.

"This is absolutely an improvement over previous movie-going experiences," she said. "It did make a difference."

"Change is difficult," Chesney said, noting that early patrons of the new system still ask for the old headphones, basically amplified speakers. The new system filters out background. She's finding first-time device users need coaching, so recommends they come early for assistance. Getting more theater staff trained on them would also be helpful, Ben Cleveland said.

So far, patrons like the system, and demand for the devices is increasing, Chesney said.

The jury's still out on whether the new sound-system options are for everybody, but the hearing-impaired who've been to the movies lately are buzzing about their potential for getting them out of the home recliner and back into the social swing with friends, neighbors, family — maybe even a date.

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Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com

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