The state’s largest movie chain will outfit virtually off its theaters with equipment designed to help those with hearing and sight problems, including those who are totally deaf or blind.
In a consent decree filed late Thursday in U.S. District Court, Michael Bowers, president of Harkins Theaters, agreed to install closed caption and descriptive video systems in half of its 25 theaters it operates in Arizona by this coming June 15. And the balance of its theaters will have the equipment by Jan 15, 2013.
Only the aging Harkins Arcadia 8 theater, which the company plans to close, and its IMAX theater in Tempe, where there is not yet compatible equipment, will be exempt.
The deal, which awaits approval by Judge Roslyn Silver, would end a 5-year-old lawsuit filed by the state Attorney General’s Office and the Center for Disability Law accusing the chain of illegal discrimination. The company is not admitting guilt but said in the agreement it is making the changes “rather than fact the time, expense and uncertainty of further contested litigation.’’
At the heart of the fight is the Americans with Disabilities Act.
One provisions prohibits discrimination “on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment’’ of services. Based on that, the Attorney General’s Office sued Harkins for failing to equip more of their theaters to aid those who had hearing or vision difficulties.
Harkins won the first round, with Silver concluding that requiring theaters to set up equipment for the deaf and the blind goes beyond “practical, common-sense boundaries.’’ She said that the nature of the service means the disabled will never be able to fully and equally enjoy movies the same as others.
But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that the only way for Harkins and other chains to escape the ADA mandate is to prove they are entitled to an exception. But that, the judges noted, would require a showing that installing the equipment would be a financial hardship or “fundamentally alter the nature of its services.’’
Attorney General Tom Horne, who inherited the case from predecessor Terry Goddard and approved the deal, said Thursday the evidence proves there was no hardship.
“It’s not that expensive,’’ he said. And Horne disagreed with Silver’s assertion that there is no way to make films equally accessible to the deaf and the blind.
“I watch movies in foreign languages with subtitles and I enjoy them,’’ he said. “If you get an accommodation (for a disability) you can enjoy the movie just as much.’’
The system for the deaf involves a form of closed captioning. The system chosen by Harkins allows the script to appear on a screen in front of individual patron but remains invisible to other viewers.
Blind patrons will get headsets that will broadcast a narrative of the action on the screen in addition to the dialog.
Assistant Attorney General Rose Daly-Rooney, who handled the case, said the basic cost of the equipment is $2,000 for each auditorium. Harkins currently operates 25 theaters in Arizona with a total of 346 auditoriums. There are 19 sites in the Phoenix area, with theaters also located in Tucson, Flagstaff, Prescott Valley, Sedona, Casa Grande and Yuma.
The company also has theaters in California, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas, which are not affected by the settlement.
Aside from the transmitters, the chain has agreed to initially purchase enough closed-caption receivers and descriptive video headsets to accommodate one patron in every two auditoriums. But since the devices are not linked to any one transmitter, that means a complex with 16 theaters would have eight of each device that could go out for any one movie.
Daly-Rooney said there also is a requirement for Harkins to monitor demand for the equipment and purchase more as necessary.
Horne praised the deal.
“I think it’s important for people who have ... disabilities to be able to enjoy movies along with everybody else,’’ he said. “This will improve their quality of life.’’
Calls to Harkins seeking comment were not immediately returned.
As part of the agreement, Harkins has agreed to promotional events at theaters around the state when the equipment is installed and will provide up to 1,000 free admissions to individuals with sensory disabilities.
The company also will pay $24,000 to partially cover the legal fees incurred by the Center for Disability Law, which intervened in the state’s lawsuit on behalf of several clients.
The deal the state got with Harkins is substantially better than the one it negotiated more than two years ago with the AMC movie chain, which was sued at the same time in 2006. That pact required the company to have closed-caption and descriptive video available in only 10 percent of its 163 auditoriums at 9 locations in Arizona.
Daly-Rooney noted, though, that was before last year’s federal court ruling spelling out clearly that the federal disability law covers movie theaters, a ruling that gave the state the upper hand in its negotiations with Harkins.