Why We Need Better Accessibility in Film

People with audio description headphones at a movie theater

By Maya Chang

At this year’s Sundance Festival, Academy-Award-winning Deaf actress Marlee’s captioning device malfunctioned at the Sundance screening of the film Magazine Dreams, spurring both her and jurors for the U.S. Dramatic Competition to walk out of the theater.

This is only one of many stories of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, and filmmakers and festivals need to make more efforts to provide accessibility for their audiences. More than ever before in the history of filmmaking, diversity, equity, and inclusion are increased priorities in the film and television industries. However, this inclusion often ends when accessibility comes into question. Only a small number of films offer quality captioning or audio descriptions, and a majority of films screened in theaters and at festivals are not accessible to non-auditory and low-vision people.

Captioning devices are not always offered.

And if they are, there is a high chance of them not performing well—often the timing for the devices is off. Out-of-sync captions detract from the viewing experience, whereas open captions invite viewers of diverse auditory abilities to follow along together. Theaters and festivals should offer open captions, which are captions burned into the film and unable to be turned off.

Audio description is provided even less frequently.

Another accommodation that is even less common is audio description (AD). For Thomas Reid, a blind man who discusses his relationship with vision loss and his identity on his podcast Reid My Mind, there is still a lot of work to be done in audio description. According to Reid, there are many steps that should be taken to ensure that AD is not only provided but that the descriptions are high-quality and made with blind people throughout the process.

Like captioning devices, listening devices often malfunction and are not always a reliable accommodation in theaters. Alternatively, some theaters provide separate screenings with AD, but oftentimes the poor quality of the description dampens the audience experience. When Reid went to a screening of Black Panther in 2018, he noticed a few things that were off about the AD. First, he noticed that the narrator seemed to be a white British man, to which he responded, “…when the movie is so deeply associated with a culture— I think it makes sense to extend that to the audio description.” Additionally, the end credits were left out of the AD altogether. Audio description must include appropriate voice casting and essential information.

With streaming becoming more popular throughout the past several years, the audio description feature should be easily provided alongside at-home movie and TV releases– or you would think. Netflix is often considered the gold standard when it comes to quality audio description, but even it only has limited shows and films that provide the service. Many other streaming platforms have a low-quality, automated computer voiceover of AD—or none at all.

What’s the solution?

With the rise of streaming, closed captions are used more and more widely, even for those without accessibility needs. Integrating captioning and audio description into a film can greatly expand a film’s audience, yet many filmmakers and festivals still do not provide captions for their films. In a world where we have the resources to make movies more accessible to those who rely on captioning and audio description, there is a lot of work to be done to ensure that non-auditory and low-vision audience members can enjoy a film just as much as their able-bodied peers. More filmmakers should think about accessibility from the very beginning of their process—not as an afterthought.

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