They propose to put captions on 0.03 per cent of cinema screenings for two-and-a-half years. Do they realise what this means?
In the late 1920s, sound came to the cinema, and the silent movie era came to an end. Incredible as it sounds today, deaf people in the United States protested. The silent movies’ version of present-day captions was called intertitles, and served both deaf and hearing audiences. Intertitles disappeared with the introduction of sound, and deaf people were left out.
Eighty years later, Australia’s version of this obscure protest is being played out. In 1999, a complaint was made against cinemas alleging that their failure to provide captions on movies amounted to discrimination under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). There have been about 50 further complaints since, and all have run out of steam. No-one has been willing to risk financial ruin by pursuing a complaint against cinemas via the DDA to the Federal Magistrates’ Court.
In the 17 years since the enactment of the DDA, the grand result of 50 complaints and fruitless negotiations with cinema chains is that 12 cinemas around the entire country show three screenings a week of captioned films. The cinemas decide what fims will be captioned, and show them all at off-peak times. For example, who goes to the movies on Wednesday mornings?
Four of the cinema chains – Hoyts, Village Roadshow, Greater Union and Readings – have now applied to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) for an exemption from complaints made under the DDA for a period of two-and-a-half years, after originally asking for five years. In exchange for this exemption, these chains will provide captioning and audio description for blind people for three screenings a week in 35 cinemas around the country.
It sounds like progress, but their proposal needs to be put into perspective. These chains run 125 cinemas, with 1182 screens, across the country. Every week these cinemas show an estimated 41,370 screenings. Of these, the chains are proposing that 105 will become accessible. This is less than one-third of one percent of all movies screened in the country, every week, year after year. Meanwhile, Access Economics estimated that in 2005 the adult population of Australia with hearing loss, or those likely to need captions to make sense of any film, is 3.55 million, and the numbers are increasing. Assuming everyone in the country likes going to the movies, the cinema chains plan to make 0.03 percent of cinema screenings accessible for nearly 18 percent of the population which needs them.
Using these estimates, the cinema chains will have shown well over five million movie screenings until roughly September 2012. The cinema chains are asking for permission to discriminate against deaf and hearing-impaired people, and blind and vision-impaired people, for every one of these screenings. A cynic might point out that since the late 1920s cinemas have been doing that anyway.
The AHRC invited submissions to comment on the application. It received 465 submissions, of which an estimated 450 objected to the application. A common theme was the lack of choices of captioned films at suitable times in local cinema complexes, or put succintly, “why are we denied the same choices as hearing people?” These submissions told angry stories of how there is nothing for deaf people in the country, of a lack of G-rated captioned films for deaf children during school holidays, of heavily promoted new releases which may or may not be captioned much later, and of abrupt changes in advertised captioned session times. Out of these hundreds of submissions, the most poignant comment was: “Why do these Cinemas HATE deaf and other people with disabilities so much?”
The cinemas’ attitude reveals a chronic lack of imagination. They are locked into a point of view that a person with a disability is a nuisance. Effectively these cinemas are saying to Australia’s millions of deaf, hearing-impaired, blind and vision-impaired people: shut your bleating and be grateful while we do what we decide is best for you.
It has dawned on no-one that deaf and hearing-impaired people might represent a distinct market segment and an immense opportunity. Village cinemas for example use ‘Gold Class’ seating as a marketing pitch to the affluent cinema-goer. Any Marketing 101 student will pounce on the prospects offered by a market segment of one in six of the population.
This segment is merely asking for a fair go. There is no expectation that captions must appear on every single film screening, but deaf and hearing-impaired people would like a far greater range of choices of films and session times in many more locations. There is already captioning technology that allows deaf cinemagoers to watch a film with captions that do not appear for the hearing audience. An investigation and trial of such technology would considerably widen choices.
The irony is that hearing people use captions, and not just for foreign-language films. Numerous television commentators have written about turning on English captions to fully enjoy on DVD the extraordinary American drama series The Wire.
From a 21st century perspective, the protest by deaf Americans in the late 1920s against the introduction of sound seems quaint and forlorn. But they were not protesting against the introduction of the talkies. They were saying, do not exclude us from this experience of cinema. That is what deaf people continue to ask. The cinema chains must provide accessible cinemas for the simplest of reasons: it is the right thing to do.
This article appeared in the National Times website in January 2010