Deaf and Disabled access in film exhibition

Posted on April 9, 2020 by Helen Wright

Categories: General

We spoke to Helen Wright, Festival Coordinator at Scottish Queer International Film Festival (SQIFF) about her experience of ensuring the festival is accessible to all audiences. Helen explains how SQIFF integrates access across their organisation and events, making this integral to their work from the very start.

As film exhibitors take stock currently and adjust to massive shifts in their plans and operations, an opportunity exists to think in deeper ways about access and inclusion, particularly for Deaf and Disabled audiences. With an ongoing public health crisis disproportionally impacting Disabled people, it’s more important than ever to address the sustained lack of access this group has to film culture. It is still the case that the majority of events lack basic access for many, which is a legal as well as ethical concern. To address this effectively, a change in attitude and approach is essential. Simply put, access for Deaf and Disabled people needs to be integrated across organisations and events rather than treated as an extra or afterthought.

SQIFF 2019, credit Tiu Makkonen
SQIFF 2019, credit Tiu Makkonen

Consider access right from the start

In running a film festival that seeks to be as accessible as possible, at SQIFF we work to build that access into every aspect of our planning and processes. This starts for us at the submissions stage, where we ask submitters if they have captions and audio description (AD) available for their film. We also ask distributors or other rights holders at an early stage if they have these features for movies we’re considering. This means we can take the availability of captions and AD into account when selecting films for our programme. The aim is to make this as central to programming as any other consideration. If you factor in elements such as premiere status, affordability of screening fees, and representation, then why not also make accessibility for Deaf and Disabled audiences a determinant of choosing to select a film or not.

We’ve recently been adapting our submissions viewing and programming methods beyond just taking into account captions and AD. When we watch a film and are putting it forward as a ‘yes’ or ‘maybe,’ we make notes on spoken language/s featured alongside how accessible the work might be to blind and partially sighted audiences outside of having AD. For example, how much dialogue or voiceover conveying a film’s plot and ideas is there versus the latter being visual-based, and how bright are the images on screen? Are there any flashing lights that could trigger seizures for people with epilepsy, or sudden loud or abrasive sounds which those with sensory overload, for instance, those on the autism spectrum may find difficult? Is there violence of particular kinds, especially sexual violence or that directed towards a specific group like queer people, that can be content warned for to mitigate negative effects on folks with PTSD?

It’s possible to programme with these in mind to provide a range of screenings with access for different audiences. At the least, recording these components at the stage of viewing a film for possible selection means you have a ready database of relevant info that can be advertised when publicising events, making it easier for audiences with particular conditions to navigate your events.

SQIFF's custom form on FilmFreeway
SQIFF’s custom form on FilmFreeway

Similarly, it’s vital to build in consideration of access at the early stages of budgeting, marketing plans, and working with venues. Lack of financial resource is one of the biggest excuses presented for failing to provide adequate access. However, a comprehensive approach to inclusion would mean accessibility costs being treated as essential to putting on an event as opposed to an optional addition. This might entail making a case to funders – who in theory should be accommodating given the current emphasis on ‘diversity’ – or it could necessitate scaling back activity to deliver less but ensuring more people are included. Budgeting for SQIFF involves integration of access concerns across all areas. In order to guarantee screening all films with closed captions or at least subtitles, for example, we allocate a certain amount to captioner fees.

However, we also build in coordination of captioning and AD plus inevitable last minute captioning work that needs to be done in house to our tech team roles and fees. When it comes to our marketing budget and planning, we consider from the outset creating materials for Deaf and Disabled audiences. This currently includes BSL trailers, large print, use of access symbols, and image descriptions but there are lots more possibilities.

SQIFF 2018, credit Tiu Makkonen
SQIFF 2018, credit Tiu Makkonen

Deliberation of the venue/s you use further necessitates prioritising accessibility as much as other aspects like cost and tech facilities. There are likely to always be some limitations but having an awareness of what is available from the outset before you confirm a venue or decide which events to hold there goes a long way. Wheelchair access is often treated as the first and last access consideration but there are many other fundamentals. Are there hearing loops? What are lighting levels like? Is there a space where people can go to escape crowds and noise? Again, these are just a few possible examples.

SQIFF 2018, credit Tiu Makkonen
SQIFF 2018, credit Tiu Makkonen

Foreground accessibility as much as you would other aspects of delivering events

SQIFF is a smallish to medium-sized festival across five days with around 50 events. Our programming emphasis is on queer-made work, which tends to – albeit for less than optimum reasons – not include bigger films with more money and prestige at stake. This has allowed us more flexibility in how we choose to present films. Though, we still have a long way to go in working out how to resource and integrate greater accessibility. For those more beholden to external interests, there is massive scope for a change in culture and mindsets towards Deaf and Disabled access. A good starting point – as suggested – is to foreground accessibility as much as you would other aspects of delivering events. From there, you will be able to work out what is achievable and what areas you can focus on educating yourselves and your team on.

SQIFF 2019, credit Tiu Makkonen
SQIFF 2019, credit Tiu Makkonen

It’s important to mention there is no substitute for employing people with lived experience of accessing arts events as Deaf or Disabled folks. They are the ones who know best what is required and how you can implement improvements. We know that Disabled people are underemployed in the film sector. There is a lot to say around employment practices, discrimination, and privilege but perhaps useful to ponder is how, for example, someone who is Deaf and needs captions or BSL would build up the interest and experience to apply for film exhibition jobs in the first place if these basic provisions are absent from the majority of events.

Now is an especially opportune time for exhibitors to reassess their approach to access. The seismic happenings present a chance to review access measures offered, and what might be necessary and achievable. Various circumstances have been highlighted during the COVID-19 outbreak. Some Disabled people – along with older people – are particularly at risk from the disease, so that when in person events do start up again, there is an increased incentive to place access front and centre.

How will venues and events respond to a potential need to shrink the number of people gathering in one space, and to enhance sanitisation? At SQIFF, we’re thinking about the logistics of wiping down screening spaces between every film, for example, and providing free masks and hand sanitiser at venue entrances. Exhibitors might also acknowledge the disbelief of Disabled activists that such big efforts are being made to move everything online when many people have been cut off for years through the need to stay home without being offered such accommodations. It would be diligent to contemplate how content can be made available – and made accessible – online on a permanent basis, even when physical events come back.

The anger of people who have been refused distance participation in jobs and events in the past only to see these now become the norm reflects Disabled people’s needs often being considered last, if at all. There is a moral imperative to counter this state of affairs through working to make the most oppressed and marginalised experiences equal to other concerns within film exhibition.

Here are some achievable initial ideas for working towards assimilating Deaf and Disabled access for cinemas and festivals:

  • Provide incentives and encouragement for all staff and volunteers to educate themselves on an ongoing basis about Deaf and Disabled access, and not just those directly responsible for implementing accessibility.
  • Develop a standard of checking if captions and AD are available for every film you select or book for your programme.
  • Gradually increase the percentage of films you screen with captions. This will get hearing audiences progressively used to these whilst expanding what you offer audiences who rely on captions.
  • Expand access information provided for every film to include language/s, provision of subtitles/captions and AD, and relative accessibility for blind and partially sighted audiences.
  • Implement improvements to the accessibility of marketing materials one step at a time over a period to get staff used to these. For example, start by introducing image descriptions, then work on using Simple English, followed by introduction of access symbols. Wait until your marketing staff have mastered each element and started to incorporate them automatically before moving on to the next.
  • If you don’t have a thorough access guide for your venue, create this and put it on your website. Click here to find an example of a good access statement on CCA Glasgow’s website.

To learn more about SQIFF’s work please visit their website. Another great resource for the industry comes from Inclusive Cinema – a UK-wide project developed by the BFI Film Audience Network (FAN) to support screen exhibitors. 

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