Accessibility in Movies and Video in 2018

...and Why I’m Not Going to Shut Up about It

 

I recently had my first experiences using hearing assistance technology (and I use the word technology with something of an eyeroll) at two movie theatres in Toronto. Here's why filmmakers have got to start putting accessibility functions and services into their budgets. The cinemas can't project captions that aren't there.

 

Amazon's photo of a Listen personal amplifier: a small black device resembling a handheld transistor radio, showing volume and battery levels in a screen near the top.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audio Assistance

At the first cinema, I was lent a Listen personal amplifier device with disposable earbuds in exchange for my driver’s license as collateral.

I was rather excited because I was seeing Interstellar, and I knew from previous viewings at home and in the cinema that Matthew McConnaughey’s voice is very difficult to hear in that movie. I thought this would help me hear more of his lines.

With the Listen brand amplifier (smaller than handheld transistor radios and thicker than a cellphone), there was a belt clip. That’s great if you’re wearing something with a waistband. Also, a little red light is visible, which I suspect may be annoying to seat neighbours, and I’m not sure there’s necessarily enough earbud-wire length to turn it upside down in your cupholder or to wear it upside down on your belt to not distract them periperhally.

If you know Interstellar, you’ll know that Hans Zimmer’s awesome soundtrack blasts through much of it—and I mean blasts, to the point of the seats and walls shaking in a non-IMAX movie: organ-lover’s delight! So, every time the action and mood was ramping up, I had to whip the earbuds out (I ended up using my own, as the provided ones were cheap) or have my eardrums practically split. Fine: hazard of the film, and amplification was not needed at that point. However, what was so disappointing was that all the hearing receiver did was create an annoying echo due to a delay in transmission, sort of like echos in cell calls or the overseas long-distance calls of yesteryear on landlines. Now I was hearing Matthew utter his tortured feelings in duplicated mumbling. I gave up on the “assistance” halfway through. This is a device retailing for about $250US or $400CA, so it’s no cheapie, and still the results were less than stellar…

How can an echo assist hearing? Do more current or more expensive models avoid this problem? Leave a comment below if you have other experiences. I retrieved my ID without comment, as I didn’t feel the box-office staff would be very invested in my feedback. They’re 20something with normal hearing, after all.

 

A CaptiView device in the foreground of a dim cinema auditorium; the green digital print gives connection instructions for that cinema.

 

Visual Assistance

My second experience was using CaptiView in a cinema; I did call ahead to make sure one would be available. Not only was it available, it was at the tickettaker’s booth, ready to go, and she knew how to set it up: good start! It conked out during previews “battery very low!!” and the manager said it was because it had just been used in a previous showing, so that indicates to me that perhaps several more are needed on hand to provide access while spent ones are recharged. Nevertheless he had another immediately available. Interestingly, they did not ask for ID or any security for the device: not that I’d want to walk out with one, but I was still pleasantly surprised not to be treated like a potential thief.

Complicating this experience was the flawed subtitles in the movie I saw when a foreign lanugage was translated, so I had two layers of imperfect access to negotiate in my attempt to be fully immersed in the story. In general, the CaptiView worked okay. But:

  1. As I’ve pointed out before, you have to place it in your cupholder, so that leave no cupholder for your pop, which is a problem if you also have popcorn to eat.
  2. Twice the device popped out of the cupholder and fell to the ground: you need to really shove it down prior to the show!
  3. The green type was a good size and clear, except when it didn’t show! Some captions were missing—as in entire or partial sentences never came up and the subsequent lines were on the second or third lines of the device, so I don’t know if that meant the problem was in the CaptiView or the digital file, but it happened about a dozen times.
  4. I felt like I was restricted to a corner of the back row: the green light is distracting to other audience members. What if I had arrived late to a filled auditorium? Would I have to ask a bunch of people to move or would they have to put up with it?
  5. Only the main feature was guaranteed to be captioned. In fact, as noted above, one trailer was captioned on the device. All the other movies that could have attracted the Deaf/hoh audience did not. (I’m assuming the Red Sparrows film itself is accessible and not just the trailer.) And all the pre-film promotional chatter, games, quizzes, interviews, etc. were not accessible. What—only hearing people want to know celebrity news and movie hype?
  6. What if a bunch of my D/deaf friends and I wanted to go to a movie? We couldn’t go spontaneously (what cinema is going to be able to guarantee six recharged devices always available?) or perhaps at all even if notice was given to a smaller company that might not have that many CaptiViews. So, in essence, we’re still facing a lack of or inadequate access. We’re still not able to participate fully in cultural content in the same way hearing folks are. Would it be okay if wheelchair ramps were only available 10% of the time?

In general, the experience wasn’t a disaster, but I certainly wasn’t enthralled with this option. Between my eyes constantly changing focus from short- to long-range, stumbling and losing story immersion when captions were missing, and missing a lot of the movie’s visual impact with the device as a distraction, I definitely did not engage with the film the way I normally would. In short, the CaptiView is sometimes available, but not always conducive to full cultural engagement, and that is a half-baked experience, not full access.

 

In December 2017, Charlie Swinbourne (UK journalist and Limping Chicken blogger about all things Deaf) started a poll to have UK cinemas dedicate one screen per multiplex to captioned movies. This was prompted after a fiasco of inaccessibility at the opening of The Last Jedi, where Deaf/deaf folks were treated shamefully. As of early January, he had 23,000 signatures and had spoken to cinema executives about relevant issues.

This  coincided with the investigation I was carrying out over the pond, which I have tweeted about, and I have been engaging in similar conversations with execs of the cinema corps I have access to in Toronto: Cineplex, Lantern/Imagine, TIFF, Hal Jackman (formerly Cinématheque at the AGO), the Revue, the Royal, and Hot Docs (formerly the Bloor Cinema). I emailed each via general contact emails to start and asked what availability they had for Deaf/deaf/hard of hearing moviegoers. The responses—some seemingly canned, some more invested—are here.

I’ve had conversations with some of these same execs to see if I can’t do some educating about hearing loss, advocating for better accessibility, and asking for meaningful follow through. Some have indicated a willingness to implement more if more products were provided with caption files. The general public tends to blame the cinemas, but they can’t project captions that aren’t on the film file. It’s the movie producers who need to step up.

I also canvassed some small film producers who are making films on (their own) shoestring budgets. Again, there is willingness to caption but not available financial resources.

This investigation has convinced me that if there is to be greater access, it must begin with the major film producers—the ones with the financial ability and the cultural clout to make it the norm to include caption-accessible prints amongst their distributions. I bet if a close relative of one of the big wigs were deaf, they’d have captions all over their product, including trailers (of which I only saw one file on CaptiView for the upcoming Red Sparrows by 20th Century Fox and Chernin Entertainment).

Finally, I don’t know why the government has paid only lip service to the large Deaf, deafened and hard of hearing communities, considering how many there are in Canada (most Western countries use the estimate of 10% of the population as having some form of hearing loss or problems). Accessibility to content for the Deaf, deaf or hard of hearing has been in the supposed forefront of accessibility changes for 30 years (really spurred on by the advent of VCRs in the 80s), but not much has changed. Currently, there's a survey about live captioning in Canadian TV, but this is duplication. The CRTC did a survey about captioning 10 years ago, and the requirement to provide captions (with various exceptions) is not enforced. You can read about its status here; while you can complain about bad captions, the independent ombudsman they promised in 2015 is still slated for the future. They've done standards policies, surveys, focus groups and pilot projects (2008, 2012, 2015). Where's the improvement? They don't seem to understand the nuances of captioning, reading, and how textual editing affects user experience. You can have the fastest captioners in the world produce CCs, but "quality control" needs to be two-stepped: technical and editorial. The latter is not taught or enforced. I know because I worked as a captioner. (I did offer to help set up a vocational school so that effective language training would be offered—in Canada, anyway. But crickets.)

VODS like Netflix* have continued to do the poorest job, just enough to stay out of regulatory trouble it seems, but my educational portfolio of hundreds of caption fails proves that the non-hearing are completely underserviced in all public services with captioning. Based on the attempts I’ve made to educate and offer improvement, the interest and will just isn’t there. And I’m not going to shut up about it until people needing excellent captioning in all aspects of life start seeing improvement to access, and therefore participation in Canadian life.

I’ve also written about 2017 being touted as the year of the deaf in the movies. Here’s what I thought about The Shape of Water, Wonderstruck and all the hype about D/deaf folks in film.

 

 

*I really don’t have a hate-on for Netflix alone; it’s just the system I have and use, not having a TV. But I do have ill regard for them: their attempts to service the non-hearing are terrible and nowhere near meet their advertised standards. This is because their system of hiring “Preferred Vendors” promotes unqualified bottom-feeders in many cases. (Not all—I have subtitling colleagues who are professional translators and titlers who are NPVs, but they are the exception to the rule.) If you’d like to send me screenshots of caption or subtitle fails from other sources, please do (info@reelwords.ca): I’ll add them to my portfolio of fails and fixes.

 

For information on booking teaching and speaking engagements, see that tab on my website.

 

Top image: from amazon.com

Bottom image: by author

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