Independent Cinema Office: What we learned from our survey about improving cinema for deaf people

Posted on June 21, 2017

Everyone wants a good night out at the movies, and Deaf people are no different. But when we at the Independent Cinema Office released the documentary Power in Our Hands (in partnership with the British Deaf Association) we discovered that there was a big gap in services between the hearing and Deaf communities.

We also saw that there is a genuine appetite for Deaf people to come to the cinema, if the experience is comfortable, marketed correctly and done in collaboration with the community.

Cinema is behind theatre in terms of accessibility for Deaf people, despite sharing many of the same challenges. There is some provision of subtitled screenings, but take-up isn’t always what it could be.

So what are the things keeping Deaf people away from the cinema? With the help of our friends at Action on Hearing Loss, the British Deaf Association (not to mention this very blog), we set out to gather responses from as many Deaf people as we could.

In the end , we received over 250 responses from Deaf people across the UK and we also conducted a series of in depth focus groups with Deaf people to help create a fuller picture.

We came away with some clear takeaways and worked with Glasgow Film Theatre (home of the exemplary Visible Cinema group) to show others what can be done. We built this into one large resource that is now available for free for cinemas. So what did we learn?

Cinemas need to improve how they show subtitled films

Lots of Deaf attendees spoke about pre-show anxiety. Not only do they sit through trailers that are never subtitled, but it’s also a major gamble whether the film will play with the Hard of Hearing subtitles in place.

The conversion to digital cinemas from 35mm film promised a bright new future for Deaf cinemagoers, making it very easy to deliver subtitles and turn them on and off as desired.

However, with this switch came a decline in projectionists on site, meaning that screenings are not so carefully attended to. Refunds are often offered in this situation but one interviewee made their frustrations about this very clear:

‘I made multiple attempts to watch films at my local cinema where I received continual apologies for subtitles not working and given ‘two free tickets’. I had so many free tickets I ended up just throwing them away as I could never use them!’

There’s still lots of talk about various new technologies that could revolutionise subtitling (including Entertainment glasses) but before this revolution arrives to deliver us all from the horror of no subtitles, more attention and care needs to be taken by cinemas.

Cinemas need to be more welcoming for Deaf people

The challenges don’t end with technical delivery though. Many Deaf people noted in our surveys and focus groups that they didn’t feel welcome in the cinema, (‘Cinema is for hearing people’) with staff either unaware or indifferent to Deaf patrons.

This looks to be one of the more deep-rooted issues holding Deaf people back from coming to the cinema. Faced with learning full BSL or making other major adjustments, most time and resource poor cinemas that rely on a wide network of casual staff are unlikely to deliver.

Yet cinemas don’t need to make a giant commitment show they are Deaf-friendly: many agreed that staff knowing even a few phrases in BSL would make the experience more pleasant. That’s why we produced this video series that highlights the key signs that staff and Deaf patrons are most likely to use when they come to the cinema.

Cinemas need to show films at times that fit with Deaf people’s lives

While many cinemas do show subtitled films, they are often at anti-social times, ignoring the fact that Deaf people are in work and that they want to use the cinema as a social space in the same way hearing people do.

Cinemas are stuck in a ‘chicken or egg’ scenario: subtitled screenings at inconvenient times get low attendance, so they refuse to put them into slots that Deaf people might actually attend.

We also interviewed cinemas to help understand the barriers to making a change for Deaf provision and this was an often cited barrier to increasing opportunities: ‘‘We have screened subtitled films for Deaf/hard of hearing but very poor take up and hearing people complained about the subtitles.’

Good outreach can also help with that…

Cinemas need to think clearly about marketing to Deaf people

If English isn’t your first language and there’s no subtitled trailer, don’t be surprised if people aren’t sold to come to see films advertised as such.

Cinemas like Watershed in Bristol do a great job changing this: they have a screen in house with video with BSL descriptions of the films that’s also shared online. Having a dedicated page on your site about Deaf accessibility is a good idea, as is reaching out to Deaf groups.

There were many other challenges faced by Deaf audiences, not least the lack of diversity of material beyond Hollywood blockbusters. We hope this guide gives cinemas a tool to be empowered for change, change that is necessary (if not always easy).

The Independent Cinema Office firmly believes watching films in a shared space changes lives, and we want as many people as possible to be able to have that experience. We hope this is the moment for a big change for the better in Deaf cinema.

We are delighted that the Limping Chicken’s own Charlie Swinbourne will be joining this week at Developing Your Film Festival (DYFF) – the world’s only development programme for film festivals.

Taking place this year at Edinburgh International Film Festival, DYFF brings together key festival staff from the best festivals from around the world. As part of our ongoing commitment to developing Deaf audiences, this year’s course will feature a panel discussion focused on encouraging film festivals to both work with Deaf filmmakers and engage with Deaf audiences.

Find out more about the Independent Cinema Office here:


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