Tamsin Coates: The importance of subtitled cinema

Posted on June 22, 2012

I am a hearing mother of two deaf sons and a hearing daughter. My boys are profoundly deaf, and while they both wear cochlear implants, we have also actively encouraged their development of a deaf identity by having contact with deaf adults and older deaf children who are their role models.

When they were younger, both boys communicated primarily through sign and they continue to practice signing to this day.

When they were young, the boys loved programmes and cartoons that didn’t rely on language to tell their stories. Visual humour was king in our house, with ‘Tom and Jerry’ and ‘Brum’ being firm favourites.

As they have grown and learnt to read proficiently, there are always subtitles on our television. With the words on the screen they can now ‘catch’ all those subtle parts of the programme they missed before. The only downside for us parents is occasionally having to explain words they’ve caught that are slightly beyond their years!

Our family has always gone to the cinema as other families do. Over the years we have grown a thicker skin to cope with glances from other people who don’t like the hushed explanations needed to explain parts of the storyline to the boys which they hadn’t heard accurately, or at all.

When a new cinema opened locally, my friend and I approached them (representing the local deaf children’s society) to discuss the possibility of regular subtitled performances (the cinema was getting a good reputation for its involvement in the community). Following an encouraging response from the manager we received a schedule of new films, to be shown on a fortnightly basis for the next few months. That was easier than we thought!

A mixture of families have come to the subtitled screenings: hearing parents with deaf children, deaf adults with their deaf children and also deaf adults with hearing children. In those screenings we have an opportunity to be a community, a mix of deaf and hearing people together, with different methods of communication accounted for. A deaf teenager has been able to come with her younger siblings and the whole family enjoy the film as one. Profoundly deaf parents have been able to bring their young hearing son and enjoy cartoon films that could never be lipread, and laugh about it with him later.

Within this positive picture I am painting, there has also been frustration. For while the early commitment from the cinema was positive, since then we have encountered all the problems so often documented by others.

Subtitled screenings have started early so the essential parts of plot have been missed by the time we have entered the theatre. The times have been moved back so that a film won’t be shown for another hour (causing equal difficulties). Finally, obtaining information for an upcoming performance can be a long, laborious process, as staff are unaware that they happen.

When these problems do occur the staff are not deaf aware, have no signing skills and seem completely unaware of the value of these performances.

This article is not here just to highlight these difficulties. This is a mission statement, a statement of intent if you like.

Within our little corner of the world we value what we have experienced as a community in those viewings, so we will take up the challenge.

We will ring every day of the week to find out the time of the Sunday screening and then text everyone about it. We will demand the cinema put on another screening with subtitles if they start the film before the advertised time, and we will chase them to start the subtitled performance if they put it back by an hour.

We aim to banish the apathy towards this issue one blockbuster or rom-com at a time!

Tamsin Coates trained and worked as a Speech and Language Therapist for over 10 years. Her training came in useful when she had two sons who are profoundly deaf. She now juggles being a mum to three lively children, writing, running the Wirral Deaf Children’s Society (with her friend Lisa) and raising awareness regarding deaf issues wherever she can.

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