Technology upgrades are enhancing the theater experience for some Beaufort County movie-goers, allowing cinemas to offer accommodations for blind, deaf and hearing-impaired customers.
The Park Plaza Cinema on Hilton Head Island is the latest theater in Beaufort County to add devices to aid the hearing- and vision-impaired.
Last week, the theater began offering, at no extra charge, headphones that can play narration of action scenes for blind filmgoers or boost the movie's volume for hearing-impaired viewers.
For deaf customers, the theater provides a small closed-caption screen -- black with green lettering -- that anchors to a chair's cup holder. Adjustable arms are designed to let users position the device within their line of sight with the big screen. The device's smaller screen has blinders on its sides so nearby audience members aren't distracted.
Theater co-owner Larry Mann said buying and installing four sets of headphones and three closed-caption devices cost nearly $10,000.
"For blind or deaf people to enjoy a movie, you've got to have all these things," Mann said.
Proposed Americans with Disabilities Act standards might require theaters to offer similar accommodations, according to Rebecca Williams, information specialist at the Southeast ADA Center. She said the standards, which could be adopted by the U.S. Department of Justice within a couple of years, could require 50 percent of a theater's screening rooms to provide captioning and descriptions for blind, deaf and hearing-impaired customers. A bill also was introduced in the U.S. Senate in March that calls for all theaters with two or more screening rooms to make captioning and video descriptions available for all showings.
Regardless of whether the accommodations are mandated by the government, Mann said customers will expect and request them more often as theaters add the features voluntarily.
Cinemark Bluffton began offering the headphones and closed-caption viewers about a year ago, said manager Jordan Whetstone.
The theater gets about 50 requests a month for the equipment, Whetstone said. Some call or email ahead of time to make sure the headphones or captioning devices are available, he said, but advance notice isn't necessary.
"Just because you have a disability does not mean that you can't also enjoy the theater just like everybody else does," Whetstone said.
He said the headphones make dramatic improvements for the hearing impaired.
"I'm half deaf myself," he said, "so if I didn't really think that the audio was great, I wouldn't let people use them."
Whetstone said his hearing was diminished while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2006 to 2012 because of gun blasts, though he doesn't usually wear the headphones in the theaters.
"I would if my hearing was worse, but usually the audio is loud enough that I can hear in the theaters," he said.
The Coligny Theatre on Hilton Head doesn't offer any of the devices yet, but David Scott, who works at the theater, said it plans to this winter when it updates its film projectors to digital systems.
The Highway 21 Drive-In Theatre in Beaufort does not yet offer the devices, either.
Northridge Cinema 10 on Hilton Head provides the headphone devices for the hearing impaired.
Park Plaza's new equipment replaces old sets of volume-boosting headphones, which were sometimes unreliable, Mann said. Even so, the theater usually had at least a customer a day ask to use them.
Hilton Head resident Herb Novit, 76, said he is excited about the theater's new gear. Although not hearing-impaired, "I'm just getting old," he says.
Novit and his wife go to a movie theater at least once a week, and they are "both tired of me interrupting her," Novit said.
The headsets "make the experience a lot more pleasant when you can hear everything."
Novit said more people would ask for them if they knew the headphones were available.
"It's something I always ask for," he said. "I think there's a big need for it."
Follow reporter Brian Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_Brian.