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Court: Movie theaters must accommodate deaf-blind patrons

Federal disability law requires movie theaters to provide specialized interpreters to patrons who are deaf and blind, an appeals court said Friday.

The Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Cinemark, the nation’s third-largest movie chain, in a case involving a Pennsylvania man who wanted to see the 2014 movie “Gone Girl” and asked a Cinemark theater in Pittsburgh to supply a “tactile interpreter.” The theater denied his request.

The plaintiff, Paul McGann, is a movie enthusiast who reads American Sign Language through touch. He uses a method of tactile interpretation that involves placing his hands over the hands of an interpreter who uses sign language to describe the movie’s action, dialogue and even the audience response.

The federal appeals court concluded Friday that tactile interpreters are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that public accommodations furnish “auxiliary aids and services” to patrons with vision, hearing and speech disabilities.

“It would be impossible for a deaf-blind person to experience the movie and understand the content without the provision of tactile interpretation,” said Carol A. Horowitz, managing attorney of Disability Rights Pennsylvania, which filed suit on McGann’s behalf.

The ruling said Cinemark still can argue that providing the interpreters would present an “undue burden,” an exception to the disability law that takes into account the cost of the accommodation and the business’s ability to pay for it. It sent the case back to a federal judge to consider that argument.

Because of the intensive nature of the work, McGann requires the services of two interpreters. The interpreters cost a few hundred dollars per showing.

Cinemark earned $257 million in 2016. The movie chain also has said that before McGann, it had never before received a request for tactile interpretation.

Attorneys and spokespeople for the Plano, Texas-based chain didn’t immediately return an email seeking comment on the ruling.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed documents in support of McGann.

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