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Standardising Accessible Cinema: Less Talk, More Action

A Reflection on Accessible Cinema for Deaf Audiences

Our Access Consultant Charlie Little reflects on the current

landscape for Deaf inclusion within film exhibition.

Film still from CODA directed by Sian Heder. A young girl sticks her head out a car window and holds up the hand sign for 'love' in ASL. The white text on top of the image reads: Standardising Accessible Cinema: Less Talk, More Action. A Reflection on Accessible Cinema for Deaf Audiences by Charlie Little. There's a white border around the image and the logo for Reclaim The Frame in the top left-hand corner.

Critically and commercially acclaimed films such as the A Quiet Place franchise, Sound of Metal, and Sian Heder’s Best Picture winner CODA have catalysed a shift in the visibility of Deaf talent within mainstream and independent cinema, going on to spark conversations about Deaf audiences’ access to films and cinemas outside of Deaf-centric screen stories.

With that said, the beginning of 2023 had already been met with prominent examples of festival and cinema inaccessibility for Deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences. Most notably, the U.S. Dramatic Competition Jury for Sundance Film Festival leaving a premiere due to an access failure.

Last year, during Deaf Awareness Week, RNID (Royal National Institute for Deaf People) announced they were no longer working with the UK Cinema Association to improve accessible cinema due to the UKCA’s lack of meaningful engagement during their partnership.

Published in an open letter, the charity’s associate director for inclusion, Teri Devine, said that: “At times, commitment to this work has felt shallow and tokenistic, and we believe we can make more progress for our communities by working directly with cinemas.”

During the same week, some criticised the UKCA due to their misguided promotion of increased subtitled screenings in cinemas across the UK, a minor increase that lasted one week and one week only. Towards the end of last year, Empire, ODEON, Vue, and Cineworld stated they would commit to at least one subtitled screening at their cinemas for National Cinema Day. The National Deaf Children’s Society commented that this was: “nothing more than a drop in the ocean”.

I saw the provision of one descriptive subtitled* screening per day as the bare minimum, and this practice, only being applied to one significant date, was treading on the lines of virtue-signalling. Deaf audiences and those who rely on descriptive subtitles struggle to experience cinema on a daily basis, so this announcement held no long-lasting, meaningful impact towards reliable and frequent cinema provisions for these audiences.

The provision of descriptive subtitled screenings varies throughout the UK. I’ve been fortunate to have lived near independent cinemas that provided regular accessible screenings, but I wasn’t ever able to see many mainstream releases as my local chain cinemas didn’t schedule accessible screenings.

I specialise in disability and accessibility consultancy within film exhibition, providing consultation services on behalf of film exhibitor and access provider Matchbox Cine. For the past year, I’ve worked as an Access Consultant at Reclaim The Frame, where we work with an array of distributors and partner venues. This role has enabled me to better understand the landscape of accessibility within the UK film exhibition sector, as I’ve been able to observe the spectrum of access knowledge and provision that differs from region to region. I also recognise that cinemas, festivals, and distributors are experiencing different stages of their “accessibility journeys”, so I feel somewhat confident in the very slow but sure steps towards standardised access as I have a “behind the scenes” insight.

On the other hand, if you’re an audience member with access needs, then the insights and reassurances I have gained aren’t relevant because one’s locality to cinemas and their commitment to accessibility is what ultimately affects your experience of cinema and your perception of “the cinema” as a whole. The accessible screenings that I have been able to attend at multiplex cinemas have often been wrought with stress after having encountered numerous occasions where the film would start playing without the descriptive subtitles on, and the staff would struggle to resolve the issue and therefore opt to continue the screening without descriptive subtitles despite its advertisement as an accessible showing. I would get offered a refund, free snacks, and a drink perhaps. Because this has happened again and again, I’ve lost trust in these cinemas. It wasn’t taken into account that I had made the journey there and that this was likely the only scheduled accessible screening for that movie. It’s a very deflating experience. Other times, I’ve been to screenings where audience members didn’t realise it was a descriptive subtitled showing, and they would make complaints and demand that the film be played without. During these scenarios, it quickly becomes a self-conscious experience. As a deaf person who cannot watch films without descriptive subtitles, it’s a horrible, sinking feeling to sit with when customers are demanding that the film continues without, and staff aren’t given the training or tools to handle these situations.

Living in Aberdeen and Edinburgh meant that I could rely on Belmont Filmhouse and Edinburgh Filmhouse; two cinemas with access initiatives and a dependable provision of accessible screenings. I was devastated hearing the news of their sudden closures, and I quickly felt the gaping hole they had left behind. Due to my sight loss, I didn’t feel comfortable enough to visit other cinemas alone. I also quickly and viscerally realised how few other descriptive subtitled screenings there were in those cities despite multiple chain cinemas.

A few months ago, BBC’s Newsround reported that “more needs to be done for deaf audiences."

Dan, a young deaf film fan, recorded a week’s worth of descriptive subtitled screenings for Marvel’s Black Adam. Of the three major cinemas in Cardiff, Vue had 30 screenings Monday to Thursday. Only 1 had descriptive subtitles. Of Cineworld's 64 screenings, 2 were descriptive subtitled. Odeon had 76 screenings, with two descriptive subtitled screenings; neither of which were at the weekend.

Earlier this year, the jurors for Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Dramatic Competition left the premiere of Magazine Dreams as the festival failed to provide captioning for audience members - including juror Marlee Matlin. Members collectively decided to leave the screening after expressing concerns about the festival’s accessibility after several calls for open captioned screenings. Matlin was provided with a malfunctioning close captioning device. The jury has since published an open letter, and the stand shown by the fellow jurors has garnered widespread coverage.

Although the festival’s failures around access are deeply disappointing, the shows of support, solidarity, and disability alliance have evoked feelings of empowerment from myself and others. These displays of anti-inaccessibility attitudes are vital and substantial in their contributions towards accessible cinema practices. My hope is that the visibility of this access failure motivates audiences and those within the industry to be vocal and demonstrate their allyship for accessibility. This can’t be a fleeting moment, there has to be a continuous assessment and valued consideration of access across all elements and departments of film exhibition and production.

In the run-up to the 95th edition of the Academy Awards, it was announced that American Sign Language interpreters would be present for the first time ever on the red carpet. This newly introduced measure was part of a wider set of access provisions to both the ceremony and live telecast, advised by the Academy’s newly launched disability affinity group. There was also audio description for the red carpet and continued ramp access. An access guide was sent out to the press in attendance, encouraging accessible pre-show coverage. In the theatre, there were assistive listening devices, video packages with captions, all-gender accessible bathrooms, and a digital programme accessible for assistive technologies such as screen readers. Some may say this is too little, too late (especially given that the first award given to a Deaf actor was in 1987!), but the visibility of this provision is hugely significant and will hopefully be adopted by the wider sector in everyday practices as part of a collective movement towards genuine access and inclusion.

So, what now?

There must be collective and collaborative efforts and proactive actions towards the standardised, uniform provision of high-quality, accessible screenings, which must be accompanied by thoughtful marketing and outreach. We also have to prioritise a holistic approach, which means considering the accessibility of all elements that may be involved in a film screening, including but not limited to: live elements such as introductions and Q&As, promotional assets such as trailers, social media, and venues.

Even if accessible screenings are available, it’s much rarer to come across screenings with live, enhanced activities (such as director Q&As) with access provisions available, such as live-captioning and BSL (British Sign Language) interpretation. With our Reclaim The Frame activities, we have acknowledged that screenings with live elements cannot be considered accessible if live captioning isn’t available, even if we’ve shown the film with descriptive subtitles, because we would still be excluding a potential audience from the full event. An event can’t only have partial access provision as this negates the intention and purpose of access to film exhibition beyond the running time of a film screening. Access is intended to create as equal an experience as possible, and this extends beyond the film screening portion, ergo using a holistic approach to access. We are working towards standardising the provision of live captioning for our live events and working with our partners and exhibitors to adopt this practice. We also emphasise the importance of accessible trailers and make a conscious effort to talk to distributors about access materials as early as possible to demonstrate the demand and value we hold for these files (and, therefore, those audiences).

The Deaf and hard-of-hearing community are a vast spectrum of individual experiences and access needs. Not every Deaf person uses sign language, and there are BSL users whose second language is English, so you can’t choose live captioning or BSL interpretation over one another without potentially excluding a part of the Deaf audience, as deafness is not synonymous with sign language.

Understanding the difference between descriptive subtitles and English language subtitles and standardising the terminology around access materials holds value. Exhibitors can demonstrate the demand for access materials by enquiring about the availability of these files with distributors. Developed by Matchbox Cine, Sidecard is an online database that catalogues details about access materials, making it easier for people to find out if a title has audio description and/or descriptive subtitles that they can potentially use for an accessible screening.

As both an access consultant and a disabled person, I’m still learning every day, and I don’t speak for every disabled or Deaf person.

At Reclaim The Frame, we aim to present the films we support with descriptive subtitles and we frequently commission access materials for films that don’t have these materials available (where turnarounds allow), but it’s crucial that access isn’t an element that’s only considered at the exhibition stage in a film's lifecycle. The creation of access files and consideration for other access provisions has to be in development at a much earlier point. It’s imperative that exhibitors make use of existing access materials as part of efforts to standardise accessible exhibition practices in an impactful and sustainable way by making sure access files have a legacy and continued use so these films can reach the widest audience possible.

By taking a holistic and consultation-based approach, it is imperative to form partnerships with Deaf and disabled consultants and audiences if we are to authentically and impactfully improve access and inclusion practices. We also must consider programming and curation with care and thoughtfulness, bringing in underrepresented voices and perspectives that can change the narrative.

Although it’s Deaf Awareness Week, the industry’s commitment towards Deaf access should be daily and event-to-event, screening-to-screening. There shouldn’t be a swell or momentum but rather an ongoing, continuous effort towards embedded, defaulted accessible and inclusive practices.

*Descriptive subtitles, sometimes referred to as SDH (subtitles for Deaf and hard-of-hearing), HoH (hard-of-hearing), and captions, transcribe dialogue (e.g. for English-speaking audiences, both English and any other languages) and relevant aspects of the soundtrack, including music and sound effects, attempting to give viewers an equal experience to those who are able to watch films without descriptive subtitles. Descriptive subtitles would include speech identifiers and descriptive elements such as [door slamming] and [kettle whistling]. See this link to learn more about terminology around access materials.


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