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Global Accessibility Awareness Day

For Global Accessibility Awareness Day, Florence Grieve reflects on her own experiences of inaccessible cinema, provides insight into recent developments towards access and disability inclusion in the film industry, and calls for more to be done. 

The bright sunshine is brought to life through the audio description, and the sound of birdsong is expressed by the descriptive subtitles, which means Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) must be upon us. A day once a year for disabled people to shout about what we need and to call for access to be provided all year round.

When it comes to film, whether it’s watching the latest release in the cinema or hearing from filmmakers at festivals, I would like to say that this day is no longer needed. But as a deaf film lover, I know this isn’t the reality. From the freebies I got as a child when the subtitles failed at the cinema to scrolling through social media posts of film events that weren’t accessible for me to attend, gaps in accessibility continue to stand between me and the big screen.

In order for disabled people to be fully included, we need to achieve the perfect trinity -equality on screen, behind the scenes, and in the audience. That means authentic portrayals of disabled people by disabled actors and filmmakers that are screened in a way accessible to all audiences. In the past year, there have been steps forward in achieving this, no less when it comes to the recognition of disabled-fronted films.

I have told everyone I know to watch Ella Glendining’s (Reclaim The Frame supported) BAFTA and Sundance-nominated documentary Is There Anybody Out There? With humour and candour, it shows how exhausting it is to navigate an ableist world. Whilst my experiences differ from Ella’s, it is the feeling captured on screen that I, and many disabled people, resonate with. It is a difficult thing to put into words, let alone repeat to everyone who has never experienced it themselves, and so being able to see and share this is powerful. The documentary has functioned as a springboard for launching further conversation about disability inclusion in the industry. Another documentary using humour and candour to shine a light on discrimination is Your Fat Friend, which opened my eyes to access barriers faced by fat people, such as seat sizing, something the film aimed to raise awareness of with its release. Taking the conversation off-screen is an important step in translating the power of film into real change. Something Reclaim The Frame has helped facilitate through hosting conversations with the filmmakers behind both documentaries and providing live subtitling to ensure these events are accessible for Deaf audiences. It is this holistic approach, access to the film, the venue and the discussion, which ensures true accessibility, allowing us to be part of the conversation and the change.

One focus of GAAD is digital accessibility, and with the popularity of streaming services, it is notable that this year saw the Media Bill complete its stages in the House of Commons. If passed, the Bill, which is currently making its way through the House of Lords, will require streaming platforms to meet quotas on the access services they provide, including subtitles, audio description and sign language interpretation. Whilst this would not have a direct impact on cinemas, it makes a statement about the importance of accessibility. It may lead to a conversation of whether similar quotas could and should be introduced for other platforms for consuming audiovisual content, including cinemas and film festivals. But that isn’t to say that there aren’t those in the industry already going above and beyond the regulations a quota could impose. Two festivals committed to providing descriptive subtitles on 100% of their screenings are the Scottish Queer International Film Festival and Take One Action! But it is not clear whether this is a sign of a wider shift in the industry. As both organisations were set up to amplify marginalised voices, I have heard it said that they attract audiences who are more likely to be accepting of access provisions, even if they don’t require them personally. Is this true? Is it easier for organisations already subscribed to values of inclusivity, whether disability inclusion or other marginalised identities, to embrace accessibility, and if so, how can we make this attitude mainstream?

Perhaps we can believe in the power of Hollywood to shift attitudes; after all, CODA’s success at the 2022 edition of the Academy Awards was just one of a number of recent big hitters featuring disabled-centred stories. The A Quiet Place franchise is another, set in a world where the Deaf protagonist, played by Deaf actress Millicent Simmons, saves the day. Despite the state of the world resting on Deaf shoulders, a report by the National Deaf Children's Society found that less than half of UK cinemas showed A Quiet Place 2 with descriptive subtitles in its opening week. With the release of A Quiet Place: Day One in UK cinemas in June this year, it will be a telling gauge for the state of access at the multiplex. After little effort from the distributors of the franchise to ensure accessibility for Deaf audiences, will they finally follow the example set by the releases of CODA and Sound of Metal, which were all open-captioned?

However, the trial of new subtitle glasses, WatchWord, in a small handful of UK cinemas may render gains superfluous by the time any future titles in the franchise are released. The technology aims to remove the need for open subtitles at the cinema in favour of individually worn subtitling tech. Whilst early reports are mixed, cinema-goers reliant on subtitles will be following the trial with interest.

The recent launch of  Crip Cinema Archive by Emily Simmons aims to both be a resource and push forward the conversation on disability representation. In an interview with Little White Lies, Emily candidly reminds us that disabled people ‘..aren’t a niche audience and we shouldn’t be segregated.’ This GAAD, it’s a good reminder that the needs of disabled people are important and must be considered on this day and all year round. After all, what is cinema if not a celebration of what it means to be human? That means we must achieve the perfect trinity - disabled people onscreen, behind the scenes and in the audience. Until this happens, I’ll be here shouting for our needs to be met, this GAAD and all year round - the audio description says, ‘girl with a megaphone,’ as the subtitles read, ‘Access now, please.’

Florence Grieve (she/her) is a deaf film lover, writer and poet based in Bristol. She writes about disability and access, including her experiences of subtitling and access for Deaf audiences, and is working with local film organisations to improve accessibility for disabled audiences. Her poetry has been published in Mslexia, Acumen and broadcast on BBC Radio Bristol, she was runner-up in the Bristol Lyra Poetry Festival Slam 2024. You can follow her on Instagram @florence_grieve 


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