Opinion

UK cinema’s part-time platitudes on Deaf inclusion are laughable, and exhausting

In offering us a week of increased subtitled screenings for Deaf Awareness Week before returning back to their usual inaccessibility, the UK Cinema Association (UKCA) and all of the brands it represents have acknowledged they need to do more, but can’t be bothered to commit to accessibility.

“We want to make sure that everyone can enjoy the big screen experience,” says UKCA chief executive Phil Clapp in a press release, “and hope that by promoting subtitled films and raising awareness in cinemas during National Deaf Awareness Week, we will encourage not only those hard of hearing customers, but also general audiences to experience subtitled films in the cinema.”

The fact the UKCA wrongly refers to the awareness week as “National Deaf Awareness Week” and uses the outdated and offensive term “hearing impaired” to describe this marginalised group – one which has been ostracised by the UK cinema industry for years – tells you all you need to know about how out of touch these venues are with the Deaf community.

Whatever happened to the Technology Challenge Fund? In May 2019 the UKCA announced an update into its partnership with RNID (then Action on Hearing Loss) to develop new technology as an alternative to captioned screenings. With the involvement of two panels – one of industry professionals and the other of users which, full disclosure, I was a part of – three products were shortlisted as having potential: two were eyewear-based solutions, while the other involved the use of a second screen.

It’s been almost three years, and there’s been no major developments since.

Their reason behind the fund, explained in detail in the aforementioned 2019 update, is as follows: “The availability of subtitled screenings has long been an issue of contention. While subtitles are a vital solution for many who are deaf or hard of hearing, the reluctance of many cinema-goers to attend such screenings means that offering widespread provision is challenging for many cinema operators.”

Compare this to their statement issued at the start of this year’s Deaf Awareness Week – in which they talk about the opportunity for “general audiences to experience subtitled films in the cinema” – then this week’s promotion is either a meaningless PR opportunity because hearing people will remain reluctant to attend a subtitled screening, or it’s finally a concession from the industry that the issue is putting on showings rather than hearing people’s supposed ‘discomfort’.

The latter option – a flawed argument – is important to dismantle whenever it rears its ugly head. The same hearing people who bemoan subtitled screenings in cinemas are likely the same individuals who see no issue with the dialogue from the Orcs being translated in The Hobbit trilogy, or the Korean Oscar hit Parasite coming with English subtitles. It’s a double-standard which is as hilarious as it is infuriating, as these people are ignorant to subtitles’ growing usage and prominence. They are everywhere on our social media feeds thanks to platforms having an autoplay feature, and they also benefit autistic people; those for whom English is a second language; those with auditory processing disorder, I could go on.

It really does feel like those who have an issue with subtitles are in the minority, yet the UK cinema industry still seems to be determined to put their needs above everyone else – despite them having genuinely any other screening to watch instead.

We Deaf people don’t have that privilege, and subtitled screenings are few and far between. We have to endure weeks of dodging spoilers left, right and centre before travelling to a venue a little bit further out than usual to watch the film others have finished talking about.

That’s in a perfect scenario, dependent on the screening not being at a ludicrous time on a weekday when the cinema somehow forgets Deaf and disabled people can and do work. Is it any wonder that cinemas are arguing there’s a “reluctance” and that an increase in subtitled showings is “challenging”?

The ideal situation’s also reliant on the technology working, too, as a subtitled screening of No Time To Die became a general showing when the captions file failed – the staff members at that particular Vue venue deciding the best way to relay this information is to yell it up to customers in their seats in a darkened room.

I shouldn’t have to explain why that’s absolutely ridiculous when some of the people in said room – such as, say, me – may well be Deaf.

But yay, rejoice! For at least we have one week in the calendar year where we might just have the accessibility we’ve been asking for for the remaining 51 weeks. But as those weeks aren’t Deaf Awareness Weeks too, it’s not worth maintaining accessibility beyond seven days. That would actually look like inclusion – and as the situation with the Technology Fund has suggested, the UK cinema industry seems to only be concerned with access when they can get a celebratory pat on the back and we think change is finally here. Then, it’s back to the status quo, hoping we didn’t notice or that we’d be too fatigue from making the same arguments over and over again.

I’ll never get exhausted of calling for change in an industry which is institutionally audist, but I will tire of cinema chains part-time platitudes on accessibility. Deaf inclusion – heck, the theme of this year’s Deaf Awareness Week – is not something you can ‘pick and mix’ like cola bottles and gummy bears at a W H Smith’s, for God’s sake.

The National Deaf Children’s Society summed it up perfectly today when they described the promotion as nothing more than “lip service” and a “publicity-seeking gimmick”.

Quite.

Heck, it was as recently as February that we last saw the cinema industry’s ignorance on Deaf access. Cineworld, keen to get more bums on seats post-pandemic, announced Cineworld Day, where tickets were £3 “all day [for] all films [at] all cinemas”. If you were Deaf, though, you couldn’t enjoy the promotion, as only “some” cinemas would offer subtitled screenings on that one day.

To make matters worse, pointing out this fact – confirmed by Cineworld themselves – on Twitter led their official account to reply: “Can you let us know which cinemas don’t appear to have a subtitled screening for that day so we can chase this up on our end?”

The lack of consideration for subtitles in the industry is damning, so forgive me if I take UKCA’s with a pinch of salted popcorn.

More information about the UK Cinema Association’s week-long offer can be found in my report for The Limping Chicken.

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