Where we are now calls for a reinvention of the way we approach cinemas as a business and cinema as a community asset. In this blog series, we ask people to share a personal vision of what’s not working now and what the future of film exhibition should look like.
In this fourth article we hear from Charlotte Little, deafblind film journalist and accessibility consultant, about her vision of an industry which accommodates D/deaf audiences.
What is access? The definition of access typically translates as ‘the means or opportunity to enter a place’. Most people would automatically think of wheelchair ramps and lifts, but the umbrella term of access encompasses a vast spectrum of disabilities and conditions, as well as concepts that aren’t disability specific. I was born hard of hearing, and my peripheral vision started to gradually deteriorate during my teens. Growing up I loved movies, but I had to rely on DVDs with English subtitles and ‘Psst, what did they say?’. I accidentally discovered captioned cinema screenings when I was 16, and while I was overwhelmed with joy, I was angry that I had lost out on so many shared experiences with friends and family. Everyone should have the opportunity to experience art and culture without any barriers, and accessible exhibition is the gateway to inclusion.
The last few years have seen a drastic (but long overdue) improvement in access within the film industry, and in film exhibition in particular. Film festivals like SQIFF and independent exhibitors such as Matchbox Cineclub have challenged the exhibition landscape in Scotland and the wider UK, as demonstrated by their dedication to captioned events. Through their commitment to providing accessible showings for D/deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH) audiences, captioned screenings are steadily encouraging other festivals and independent cinemas to reassess their priorities.
But the exhibition industry has been hit hard by the pandemic, and signs of progress for accessibility have diminished. Even though cinemas are slowly reopening, measures such as social distancing, shielding, and face masks are constructing new barriers for disabled people and their interactions with art and culture. Before Covid-19, issues facing disabled audiences were far too often ignored, but how can cinemas and exhibitors improve post-lockdown? Disabled people make up 22% of the UK population, and there are 11 million deaf or hard of hearing people living in the UK. Until there is equal access, disability representation within film criticism and the film industry as a whole cannot improve. For example, I can’t fulfil my potential as a deafblind film critic until captioned showings become normalised, and film events and festivals become more disability friendly.
There are a variety of accommodating measures that cinemas and exhibitors can implement to better welcome disabled and D/deaf audiences to future events:
The attendance potential of captioned showings has been exemplified by films such as A Quiet Place, and public attitudes towards onscreen text shifted after the release of Parasite. Still, outreach, marketing, and promotion are key to the success of regular captioned screenings. Exhibitors should reach out to local disability charities and Deaf organisations, to better connect and engage with the target audience.
If no one knows about captioned showings, then no one will attend. I’ve often been told that captioned screenings are a ‘financial risk’, but these same complainants were scheduling showings for a Tuesday at 11am. Deaf people work and have commitments just like everyone else, so there needs to be flexibility with scheduling. Screening information should be promoted on social media and shared with local communities. Many disabled and D/deaf people are used to inaccessibility, and perhaps wouldn’t think to regularly check a cinema’s website due to past disappointment. This is why outreach is crucial. By interacting with local charities and community groups, awareness can improve. The same approach needs to be utilised for audio described showings and autism-friendly events.
Disability Awareness Training
Disability and Deaf awareness training are essential to provide a welcoming environment for these demographics, and this is even more important with measures such as face coverings and social distancing affecting D/deaf and blind communities particularly adversely. Staff members, especially front of house staff, should undergo awareness training so that they feel comfortable assisting disabled customers, thus easing the anxiety that many disabled and D/deaf people encounter in public. Small but significant steps such as learning useful sign language phrases and how to guide a visually impaired person contribute towards a stress-free cinema experience. It is important to thoroughly research who you choose to provide this training, as consultation with someone who has lived experiences of disability or deafness is preferred. There are numerous national and local disability organisations who can provide webinars or training sessions.
Every member of staff who interacts with customers should wear a clear mask to allow for lipreading. While face coverings are necessary, they have imposed a communication barrier for deaf and hard of hearing people like me. Purchasing a mask with a clear panel provides a solution to this problem. If you are buying such masks, then try to source them from a deaf organisation or creator, such as Molly Watt Trust. For any condensation issues, soap, fairy liquid, or anti-fog spray can be used!
Staff members should download an app that transcribes speech to text, such as Live Transcribe, which they can use if someone is still struggling to hear.
A simple but useful measure would be to have paper and pens available at the box office or kiosk in case someone is struggling to hear, and a staff member can use this to communicate with customers.
As cinemas reopen, clear and concise information about the safety measures in place is essential. Attending the cinema without any idea of the layout can be a daunting prospect for some people, and clear communication can ease this anxiety. This information has to be effectively communicated on social media, on websites, and in-venue. This refers to seating, hand sanitisers, mask-wearing, ticketing, queuing, and access facilities such as lifts, disabled toilets, hearing loops etc. When creating signs, it is important to consider visually impaired people, and how contrast and formatting comes into play. There are a wide range of informative resources available online, or better yet, you could contact a local or national sensory charity for advice.
Early entry or priority seating is something to consider, as some disabled people might not be able to stand in queues for long, and most blind people can’t social distance independently. Disabled and D/deaf audiences should be encouraged to contact the exhibitor or cinema beforehand through email, telephone, and/or social media to discuss any concerns about access. This information could be distributed to local disability or Deaf groups.
Exhibitors could film a short video which illustrates the safety measures and what it would look like from the perspective of someone going to see a film. This should be shared across all platforms, which would give the public a clear idea of the layout, and to ease any concerns. One recent example would be the video that Filmhouse prepared for their reopening.
If access or screening information is being shared online, then digital accessibility is imperative, particularly for young disabled people. This includes alt text for images, captions for video content, hashtag formats, contrast and so on. Again, there are plentiful resources on these accessibility features, and alt text is available for most social media platforms.
A New Beginning
There is still a long way to go when it comes to access within film exhibition, but the previously stated aspects are essential building blocks. As we enter an unprecedented era of cinema, now is the time to make disabled audiences a priority, not an afterthought.
Charlotte Little is a hard of hearing and partially sighted freelance film journalist and accessibility consultant, writing regularly for Flip Screen and UK Film Review. She is also a Co-Creator for Scratch Cinema. Charlotte’s areas of interest include disability representation within film and television, and accessible cinema, and she has recently launched an initiative to help improve accessibility for D/deaf and/or blind people both in film journalism and online.
For more information on what your cinema or film festival can do to improve the experience of disabled and D/deaf audiences, read our Developing Deaf Audiences for Film guide and our Developing Visually Impaired Audiences toolkit.
To read the first article in the series by Rebecca del Tufo about a more inclusive future cinema, click here. To read the second article in the series by Megan Mitchell about a vision of revitalised programming and pricing, click here. To read the third article in the series by So Mayer about their vision of a sector which values caring labour, click here.