Going to the Movies

Assistive Listening Device symbol

I used to be an avid movie buff, going to the theater once a week at least  There were times when I knew almost every movie up for an Academy Award. I waited at midnight in a line to see Star Wars Episode 1. My heart broke watching The Horse Whisperer. I watched The Titanic 7 times in the theater going by myself half the time. I laughed with Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets and Al Pacino played a fun devil in Devil’s Advocate. The Fifth Element rocked my world so much I bought the soundtrack. You get the idea.

I watched all these movies from a small town theater in California. Thanks to the SayWhatClub, I knew to look for the ALD symbol (above). When our little town built and opened a theater, I recognized the sign right off.  I asked the ticket person what they had available. They had infra-red headphones, all I had to do was turn over my drivers license while I borrowed them. They were big padded headphones which covered the entire ear, had volume control and since my hearing loss wasn’t that bad yet, I understood about 90% of the movie with them on. It didn’t take long before the ticket people recognized me and had the headphones ready by the time I came up in the line.

Then I moved to a bigger town in Arizona, about 40,000 people and had three theaters. One theater had no ALD’s available. One theater said they had them and gave me a one sided headphone, light weight and the kind that sits just over the ear canal. I held it by two fingers with my face wrinkled up saying, “This is it?” I tried them out because it was all they had and I still wanted my movies. They didn’t work at all. The third theater had the same kind of headphone and I told them no thanks.

Without good earphones, my comprehension of dialogue in movies fell to somewhere around 60%. I struggled along with movies for about 6 months and the frustration of missing the key words, the punch line and so on, I stopped going. I waited for movies to come out on video so I would have captions. Within a year, I was out of the loop with movies. It wasn’t the same as watching them on the big screen. Over the next 8 years, I didn’t even know the actors anymore. I haven’t watched the Academy Awards since the late 90’s.

When I moved to Salt Lake City three years ago, I found out we had a theater with rear-view captioning. Excited at the possibility of movies in my life again, I went. The first movie I saw there, Avatar (not in 3-D), had me happy I lived in a big city. I kept an eye on their captioned movies and it didn’t long to figure out they rarely played first run or popular movies. In a theater of about 20 screen rooms, only one had rear-view captioning. Most of what they showed there were the movies that were bombing or children movies. I lost interest.

Recently the CaptiView grabbed my attention when our deaf and hard of hearing center had a festival in September. The Utah-CAN had a table with information on the CaptiView and even had one there to show people how it worked. They explained as theaters switched to a digital format, the cup holder device would be available. I vaguely heard about it in the past but seeing it made it more real. Then, I found out the Cinemark theater down the street from me had it at their place. I couldn’t wait to try it out.

My first visit there I asked the ticket lady which movies were in digital format. She said they wall were. I stood there and looked over the list of movies playing, thrilled to have a choice again. My hard of hearing friend and I picked “The Big Year.” There were no captions during the previews but as soon as the movie started up, our CaptiViews lit up and started showing the dialogue. We let out little squeals of delight, clapped our hands quietly and then watched the movie. It was sensational!

CaptiView in the theater.

It worked so well the first time, I went back and tried watching The Rum Diary on it’s opening weekend. Nothing, no captions except to say that it was ready. I went out to inform the people in the ticket office. They sent a manager to me who said to wait there and she would be right back. I paced the hallway for 10 minutes with my CaptiView in hand when another manager giving an interview at one end of the hallway came to me and asked me what the problem was and I told him too. He said he would be right back. I paced the hallway for another 10 minutes when I saw captions light up. I missed twenty minutes but figured I could catch up.

Not. It was the wrong captions and didn’t match the movie. Maybe the device searched automatically after so much time until it found captions? Near tears with frustration, my boyfriend and I left the theater room. A guy standing just outside the doors handed me two free passes and they gave me my money back. It sort of made up for the sheer irritation of it all but I would have rather have seen the movie with captions.

Yesterday I went back again, with my free passes, to see the movie, Tower Heist. Surely, it would work all right since it wasn’t a brand new movie. We sat there I waited with tension through the previews. The movie started and nothing again! Damn it! I went out right away to inform management. They said they would be right back, har har.

I paced a different hallway for 5 minutes checking my CaptiView every minute and nothing. I resumed pacing and the manager snuck up behind me and tapped my shoulder making me jump. She said, “It shows it working fine up there.” I looked at mine and it was displaying the captions now. I let her know I was tired of missing the beginning of movies and she patted my shoulder as I went into the theater again. They must have pushed the reset button. I read about in another review of the device.

My boyfriend told me I didn’t miss much as I sat down adjusted the captions to my liking. I was not in the best frame of mind but eventually I settled in and started to laughing with rest of the people in there. Alan Alda makes a great bad guy.

I like the idea of having movies back but it’s not without irritation. How many more movies will I miss the beginning to in this process? From now on I will go earlier (my boyfriend is contantly late) and ask them as soon as I buy my ticket to please push the button before hand. Maybe the more they see me, the better they will get at the process. As I walk in they will think, “Oh no, here she comes again,” but after awhile it should all fall into routine and maybe they will like my patronage.

All Cinemarks are switching to digital format (I believe) and will have CaptiViews available. Other theater companies will follow so I encourage you all to go forth and watch a movie. Go to the theater, inquire and let’s make our presence known. John Waldo has done a lot of advocating for us so don’t let these new opportunities go by, claim them. I’m going to be a thorn in their side until they get it right.


Summer is here and some of us are spending some hard earned money to take a vacation.  Some of travelers are also hearing impaired and are consumers of the airline and cruise industry.

Thirty-six million Americans are hearing impaired and/or deaf, yet we are still struggling to obtain captioning on television, the internet, movie theaters, Broadway shows and many other places.  Within the next few weeks, I’ll be flying several planes and cruising to Alaska.  However, I bet my airline ticket that the shows and movies offered won’t have captions.

So, what’s a customer to do? I am a full ticket paying customer who just wants to enjoy the flight and cruise like everyone else.  I’m not deaf, and watching a show is more enjoyable when I understand what’s being said.  The only way I am able to understand speech is through captions.  I feel as though I spend half my life advocating and the other half learning about social media. I can’t help but say to myself, thirty-six million Americans are hearing impaired, why aren’t we all out there advocating for universal captioning?

Then again, could you imagine if we all showed up at the White House lawn to make a statement? Time to speak up.  This country has allowed the silence to take over.  The more silent we are, the less power we have to make change.  Help advocate for captioning.  How? Write the producers of non-captioned TV shows.  Thank them producers who DO caption your favorite shows.  Join the battle by joining CCAC and get informed.

Educating yourself as a consumer is the most important thing.  We deserve it.

Why Insurance Companies Don’t Pay for Hearing Aids by Dr. John S. Ford

This article was written by John S. Ford MD, MPH  Los Angeles, California, who is a full time assistant professor at UCLA.  This article was in Dr. Fords’ blog and written on 12/19/07

Why Insurance Companies Don’t Pay For Hearing Aids

 Toni Brayer MD of EverythingHealth asks the question, Why won’t insurance companies pay for hearing aids? It’s a good question and its answer has implications more far-reaching than you might think.

The obvious response would be unadulterated avarice. But if that were the case, then insurance companies wouldn’t pay for anything related to health. They’d just collect your premiums. While insurance companies may try to minimize the amounts they pay out, we all know that they must pay for something to maintain credibility (and not be sued for fraud). So something else must be happening here. And it has to do with the very  essence of what “insurance” actually is.

There’s nothing magical about how the insurance industry works. Its raison d’être has always been to spread the expenses of a rare, known risk from a small number of people to many people. This way, everyone pays a manageable amount so that no one person has to pay a huge amount.

If my house burns down . . .

If my house burns down, I don’t want to face the catastrophic expense of paying for a new house and its contents (and going broke in the process). So I buy homeowners insurance. I’ll probably never make a claim because my house probably won’t ever burn down. However, I sleep better knowing I’m insured for that unlikely event (also my mortgage lender makes me do it but that’s another issue).

This is insurance in its classic sense. There are other issues involved but this is the basic concept. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to guess why policies exclude “acts of war” from their coverage for example.

Because having my house burn down is a rare event, fire is an insurable risk. Likewise, getting seriously ill occurs relatively infrequently rendering this an insurable event.

Why not home improvement insurance?

Compare this with getting “home improvement” insurance. Have you ever seen it? No, and the reason is that if you purchased some, the likelihood of you using it is virtually 100%. Who wouldn’t opt to replace the kitchen cabinetry if your insurance paid for it? No one. So from the point of view of the insurer, the chance of a policy holder sending in a claim for a home improvement doesn’t represent a risk so much as a certainty.

So a home improvement, in contrast with a home fire, is not an insurable risk. For the company to be able to pay off such claims, the premiums would have to equal the average cost of home improvements plus administrative costs plus the additional cost of a profit. No customer would want to pay for such a policy and no insurance company would therefore offer it.

Who has hearing loss?

Now we come to the issue of hearing aids. Let’s divide hearing loss victims into two groups: the elderly and the young. First, let’s discuss seniors.

Approximately 30% of all Americans 65 and older and 40 to 50% of those older than 75 suffer from hearing loss (NIH statistics). These prevalence rates are so high that no insurance company can rationally consider hearing loss an insurable event. The risk is simply too high to make it financially viable.

Of course the insurance company could choose to spread the risk of paying for hearing aids to younger patients thus enlarging the risk pool. The problem with this is that the younger people are then paying substantially for coverage they have very little likelihood of ultimately requiring. It wouldn’t be so much insurance as a simple gift to the older-aged risk pool.

Should Congress step in?

Sure, Congress can step in and write laws that force insurance companies to pay for such benefits. That would be the simple solution and the morality of such laws is certainly open for discussion. But make no mistake, the end result of this approach would simply be to mandate such gift-giving from the young to the old.

Insurance companies want to be able to compete with each other for young people’s premiums. Those that refuse to force younger policy holders to foot the bill for older ones will clearly have a competitive advantage. The end result? Insurance companies won’t cover hearing aids in the elderly unless the government forces them to.

Insurance is meant to cover catastrophic events, not relatively common events.

This really gets at the heart of one of the biggest problems with health insurance. Insurance was originally conceived to cover so-called catastrophic events like a major surgery or a lengthy hospitalization. These are extremely expensive, though relatively uncommon events like having your house burn down or totaling your car. Unfortunately for complex reasons, people demand insulation from all health care expenses. I’ve had patients complain to me that they spent hours on the telephone with claims people and they bombard me with “doctor’s forms” to fill out so they could get their insurer to pay for a thirty dollar quad cane. Also, patients resent even minimal co-payments for office visits.

The problem is that when health plans cover the smaller (and decidedly un-rare) events such as minor equipment like quad canes and office visits, insurance ceases to be insurance and more like pre-payment instead. So when you add to these completely expected expenses things like administrative costs and a profit mark-up, premiums become needlessly high. With this extra overhead, it would be like buying a gift coupon for yourself at a store and paying more for it than its face value. Who would do that?

This is why many people concerned about health care finance (myself included) advocate moving back towards true catastrophic health insurance and away from insular insurance.

But hearing loss is rare in younger people

Regardless, this still leaves the question of why insurance won’t cover the cost of hearing aids in young patients. To me, this is a very interesting problem. Hearing loss is much less common in young people. For this reason, one would think this risk to be quite insurable and easily distributed. It doesn’t make sense that it’s not covered unless something else is going on here.

My guess? Age discrimination laws. I believe the insurance companies would rather not cover hearing aids for anyone than have to explain to older policy holders and various regulatory bodies why they provide them for the young but exclude seniors. Trust me, no one relishes the thought of going toe-to-toe against AARP and trying to justify a bias against older patients!

Should insurance exclude the elderly and focus on the young?

How would I like to see this handled? At the risk of being politically incorrect, I’d like to see a law specifically excluding the insurance companies from age discrimination regulation and lawsuits regarding their coverage of hearing aids. The likely result of such a law would be to permit the industry to cover hearing aids for the young (insurable) and continue to exclude seniors (noninsurable).

Sounds harsh and I hope my mother doesn’t try to run me over when she reads this; but I think things will still be better than the way they are now. If anyone has other ideas about this I’d love to hear about them.