Film & Cinema6th January 2014

Cinema, subtitling and Equal Access

The lack of subtitled films in the cinema has long been a thorn in the side of the deaf community

by Richard Turner

Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom: Access and Equality at the Cinema

I really wanted to go and see the new film about Nelson Mandela called ‘Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’ ever since I first heard about it a few weeks ago. But it proved to be a real challenge trying to find a subtitled show of it that my wife and I could go and see together this weekend.

Last week I looked on the website and saw that most of the shows in London were on weekdays at inconvenient times during the day when we wouldn’t be able to attend, especially as my wife works full-time. In fact, there was only one cinema in London with a subtitled show at the weekend, which was on a Sunday lunchtime at the Cineworld multiplex in Enfield.

I was really disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to watch it at our local multiplex, the Vue cinema at Westfield Stratford, and that I would have to drive for half an hour to Enfield, as it is not accessible on the tube. When I was hearing I could just go and see a film whenever I wanted to and it didn’t require so much effort planning it a week in advance because I wasn’t restricted to only one show a week.

I think it’s ironic that I couldn’t see it at the new big multiplex in Stratford because they only show two subtitled films a week there. This is the home of the Olympics and the Paralympics, where in 2012 millions of people across the world came together and saw how our society was changing into a much more equal and inclusive society to people with a disability.

Now that my choice of watching accessible, subtitled films is so limited, even in a major capital city like London, this makes me even more aware of my hearing loss. If I had the same choices and opportunities to watch an accessible film at the cinema as everyone else, this would make me feel equal and included, whereas now I don’t feel like I am treated equally.

Deaf and Hard of Hearing people in this country have a really raw deal when it comes to accessibility at the cinema. There should be a greater choice of subtitled films at reasonable times in the evenings and at the weekends.

According to ‘’, less than 1% of films shown at the cinema are subtitled. They state that there is not a huge audience for subtitled films and that cinema operators need to consider the wishes of all their audience, with some members of the audience finding the subtitles inconvenient. Cinema operators argue that there is just not enough demand for subtitled films and therefore they are unprofitable.

I believe that there is demand for subtitled films at the cinema from Deaf and Hard of Hearing people, who are all paying customers. According to the charity Action on Hearing Loss, 1 in 6 people in the UK currently have a hearing loss, meaning that there are an estimated 10 million people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing. If we take a conservative assumption that say 50% of these people would like to go to the cinema if it was accessible to them, that is still an audience of 5 million potential paying customers who would watch subtitled films. With the ageing of the population, there is potential for this number to increase much further.

Instead of only 1% of films shown in the cinema being subtitled, I think this should be increased to 10%. I am sure that if there were a greater choice of subtitled films shown at more convenient times, more Deaf and Hard of Hearing people would go there more often.

Going to the cinema is not cheap, particularly in Central London, so the cost of the ticket may be another barrier to many people. Perhaps the cinema operators could consider introducing special ‘access’ tickets at reduced rates to attract more people, like the theatres do for Deaf and Hard of Hearing people attending captioned performances, which are very popular.

Becoming a member of a film group such as the Subtitled Cinema Group London or forming your own subtitled group, is another good way to secure tickets to see subtitled films at reduced rates. Recently, I went to see the film ‘Gravity’ at a cinema in Soho with this big group and it was a great sociable gathering where I met new people. I also think people should contact cinema managers directly to ask for more subtitled films at their local cinemas. I’d also recommend using Facebook and Twitter to contact cinema groups directly to ask for better access, as I find using social media like this is very effective.

However, there are plenty of other arguments given by cinema operators about why there is not enough demand for subtitled cinema, which are not directly related to profits. They say that the majority of Deaf and Hard of Hearing people don’t need a film to be subtitled because having a hearing loop is a reasonable adjustment to provide access to them. I think that it depends on your level of hearing loss. They are not suitable for people with a severe to profound hearing loss.

Also, I found that when my hearing was better and I could use a hearing loop, the sound quality of the loop varied greatly from cinema to cinema and the volume of the soundtrack often fluctuated up and down, which I found really frustrating. I think hearing loops can be great if they are working properly and you only have a moderate hearing loss, but they didn’t work well for me personally. Subtitling is much better because it is universal and is accessible to people with all levels of hearing loss.

Another argument against subtitling is that in the future with new technology, there will be no need for open captions on the screen because people will be able to wear personal subtitled glasses, which will show the subtitles inside the individual wearer’s glasses. This means that the person wearing them will be able to see any film at any time with their own personal subtitles. I participated in a recent trial of these glasses at a cinema showing and personally, I did not like them. I found them heavy and irritating. I much prefer to watch a film with subtitles on the screen, which I find easier to watch. I would also feel really self-conscious wearing these glasses in the cinema. Maybe the technology will improve in the future and they will become lighter and easier to wear, but I didn’t like them. I also don’t think they would work if the user had a visual impairment too.

I really enjoyed the film today. It was one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time. The cinema screen was quite busy, despite the fact that the film was shown on a Sunday lunchtime and it was subtitled. The audience seemed to mainly consist of hearing people and young people. I don’t think anyone was distracted by the subtitles or found them inconvenient.

It was a really powerful and very moving account of Nelson Mandela’s struggle for equality and freedom against the backdrop of a repressive, apartheid regime in South Africa. It is so hard for a film to do justice to the life of Nelson Mandela but it got close and the actor Idris Elba played him excellently. It also showed the very human, vulnerable side of his character and how much fighting for the freedom and equality of his people cost him in terms of losing 27 years of his life in prison and the effect this had on his wife and not seeing his family grow up.

I find it such an enjoyable, sociable experience to go to the cinema with your friends and family and such a shame that I cannot go more often or more spontaneously like I used to. I would like to see large deaf-related charities campaign for better access to subtitled films at the cinema for Deaf and Hard of Hearing people, and cinema operators championing equality and inclusion at their cinemas for anyone with a hearing loss, as with any disability. I also think cinemas should promote accessibility more.

In the words of Nelson Mandela himself, “Social equality is the only basis of human happiness”.

You can read more from Richard in his blog 

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Article by Richard Turner

posted in Entertainment / Film & Cinema

6th January 2014