It’s time for Open Captions – real access to movies for Deaf people

Westgarth Cinema Campaign.jpg

Last week I went to see the movie Carol at Westgarth Cinema. My partner and I checked beforehand, three times, that closed captions would be available for this movie. But when we arrived, we were told they weren’t. This mightn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s the story of my life. I’ve been trying to see a captioned movie at Westgarth Cinema for over a year now. I’ve made multiple attempts to see closed captioned movies at the Nova in Carlton too. And at the Jam Factory in South Yarra. Over and over I have been sent home without seeing my movie, despite ringing ahead to confirm that captions would be available.

It’s hard to describe the despair that comes over me when I’ve gone to the trouble of looking up movie times, calling the cinema through the relay service (usually more than once), invited others to attend with me, set aside the evening, arranged babysitting for my son, said no to other things I’ve been invited to, gotten dressed nicely, and travelled to the theatre. Only to be told I can’t see the movie. Then the people who have come with me have the really awkward decision to make of whether to abandon the movie out of solidarity with me, or whether to fulfil their night and watch it without me. Usually they choose to stick with me, and then I feel bad that they have been let down by this as well as me. Next we have to decide what to do. Do we just go home again? It’s horrible, just horrible, and leaves me in tears every time.

It’s not just me. When I posted about this on Facebook, there was an outpouring of frustration from other Deaf and hard of hearing people who have had similar experiences.  Alice Ewing, who is also Deaf, told me she has been working on this issue with Westgarth Cinema for more than two years now, but has had no progress.

You might like to watch this video of a CaptiView experience. My experiences have all been like this.

So, what’s the problem? Why can’t Deaf people access movies?

Six years ago, the then big four cinema chains in Australia applied for an exemption from the Disability Discrimination Act. Charming, huh? Luckily, they were not successful, thanks to a group called Action On Cinema Access, which partnered with Arts Access Victoria. The court ruled that the federal government would have to make a Cinema Access Implementation Plan. Unfortunately, the community consultation process for this was largely missed, with just one tokenistic demonstration in May 2010, and no consultation with targeted audiences or real trial of the ‘new technology’ before it was rolled out. The outcome was that to provide deaf access, the big four cinema chains installed new digital technology – CaptiView, a device that would provide captions only to the people using them, but not to everyone else in the cinema.

The CaptiView system has been an abject failure. A 2013 survey of the deaf community who had used it did not reveal a single satisfied customer.

Here are some of the problems associated with the CaptiView system:

  • Staff often do not know how to use the device.
  • The device is sometimes not charged up and ready for use.
  • Staff are often confused about which movies the device can be used with and give erroneous advice.
  • The device often misses captions.
  • The device often doesn’t work, or is off-site being repaired, and staff often don’t realise this.
  • Children are unable to use the device.
  • The device goes in the drink-holder of the user’s seat, which means there’s nowhere for the user to put their drink.
  • The device extends on a flexible arm from the drink holder, and often sags – it is difficult to position it ‘just so’, allowing the viewer to see the captions and the movie.
  • One the device has been positioned, the users quickly learn not to bump it. As a result they have to sit rigidly in a single position for the entire movie, resulting in a stiff neck, sore back and headaches.
  • The user needs to focus their eyes back and forwards between the device (close) and the screen (far) resulting in sore, tired eyes and headaches.
  • It is difficult for the user to snuggle with their partner while watching the movie.
  • Some people feel embarrassed about revealing their hearing loss and refuse to use the device.
  • At times the device squeaks and creaks, embarrassing the user and annoying other movie-goers.
  • When the device doesn’t work (which is often), the user needs to fetch a member of staff, who then comes into the cinema and attempts to whisper to them in the dark, which is not an environment that facilitates good communication with people who have a hearing loss. It’s awkward and embarrassing and causes the user to miss parts of the movie.
  • The number of people who can view closed captions in a single movie session is limited by the number of devices the cinema can access.

Another problem with the system is that most cinemas do not advertise which movies/sessions have closed captions available, so someone who wishes to see a movie with closed captions generally needs to contact the cinema directly to ask, and then the information they receive is dependent on staff knowledge. Most staff don’t seem to be aware of access strategies and requirements, so give erroneous answers regarding the availability of closed captions for particular sessions.

In Hawaii this month, legislation was passed requiring all cinemas to screen at least three open captioned sessions per week, as they have recognised that the CaptiView system does not provide adequate access to movies.

Is there any alternative solution that would allow access to movies?

Yes. Open captions. Unlike CaptiView, which provides closed captions that are only visible to the person with the device, open captions are displayed on the screen, where everyone in the cinema can see them. You can think of open captions as being like the subtitles on a foreign film, but they have an additional component: descriptive information is included too. For example: ‘door slams’ or ‘suspenseful music’.

Deaf people and those with hearing loss seem to unanimously want open captions. Here’s why:

  • When a movie is advertised with open captions, the viewer can simply buy a ticket and attend the session. No special calls need to be made, no extra time allowed for staff to figure out the device, no counting of devices available and checking that everyone who needs one will have one. No-one needs to explain to the staff what the device is.
  • Screening a movie with open captions is a simple process that movie technicians are familiar with. They simply need to switch on the file. It’s a bit like watching a DVD and turning on the subtitles. As a result, when a movie is advertised as having open captions, the captions usually appear. Access does not depend on staff members knowing how to use a device.
  • Open captions are a comfortable experience for people who cannot hear the movie. They can snuggle with their partners and adjust their position as they wish throughout the movie. They can use their drink holders and don’t need to liaise with cinema staff during the movie. There is no eye-strain involved.
  • People can attend open captioned screenings without having to advertise their personal issues with hearing or understanding spoken language.

Open captions are also often appreciated by people from non-English speaking backgrounds, people with Ushers (which causes vision issues as well as deafness), and those with autism and other cognitive dissonance disorders. They have said that captions make it easier for them to follow a movie.

What are the issues with providing open captions?

From a technical perspective, open captions are pretty straightforward. When a cinema screens a movie, they purchase what is known as a Digital Cinema Package (DCP) for that movie. The package comes with separate files for various components of the movie, such as the visual track, the auditory track (sometimes more than one, if the movie is offered dubbed in multiple languages), the trailer, and, often, open or closed caption files. At the time of screening the movie, the technician selects the appropriate files and plays them.

Some movies are provided with closed caption files but not open caption files. Some come with neither. Closed captions can be switched on and used as open captions, though sometimes the formatting is not optimal for a widescreen – for instance, the lines may be a bit shorter than ideal.  In most cases, if the cinema requests open or closed caption files, the distributor can make them available. They don’t cost extra – they are simply a part of the package. For the movie Carol, which I attempted to see last week, caption files are available in the USA, but it seems the package was distributed in Australia without them. Had the cinema requested the file, likely it could have been provided.

The biggest impediment seems to be a lack of understanding by cinemas about the importance of screening open captioned movies. Perhaps they have invested in the strategies outlined by the Cinema Access Implementation Plan, and feel that the job is done and that they can tick off ‘providing access’.

There is also a social stigma associated with open captions – there is a belief that hearing people do not like them and won’t go to see a movie if it is screened with open captions. It may be that cinemas are afraid to attempt open captioned screenings of movies in case it reduces attendance and impacts their bottom line.

While it is true that open captions can be annoying for some people, there are many hearing people who have no issues at all with open captions. With practise, most people can learn to ignore them if they wish. Providing access can be inconvenient to those who don’t need it – for example, it costs more to build a wheelchair accessible bathroom than one that doesn’t accommodate wheelchairs. But we still have legislation that requires new buildings to accommodate those who use wheelchairs, because everyone deserves access, regardless of their level of mobility. It is the same for Deaf and hard of hearing people. We, too, have the right to access, even if it is inconvenient to some. Perhaps special screenings could be arranged for those who object to open captioned movies?

Is it really a big deal? Can’t deaf people just wait until the movie comes out on DVD?

Actually, it is a big deal. First, let’s look at the numbers. 1 in 6 Australians experiences hearing loss. With an ageing population, this figure is set to increase to 1 in 4 by 2050, and we also have the advent of the ‘iPod’ generation. Now is an excellent time to work on access for this large proportion of our society. These figures do not include the other groups mentioned above who also benefit from open captions. Because deafness is not a visible condition, and many people with a hearing loss do not advertise their difficulty in hearing, there is a general under-awareness about the level of deafness in Australia. So, we’re not talking about access for a small minority of people. We are talking about access for a sizeable chunk of our population.

Going to the movies is a popular, important leisure experience for Australians. While it is inexpensive to hire a DVD or watched a movie streamed on the internet, people enjoy going to the cinema and are prepared to pay extra and go to the trouble of leaving their homes because the experience is so enticing. It can be social to share a movie with friends. It can be romantic to invite someone to a movie on a date. Box office movies are often the topic of conversation, much discussed.

Deaf and hard of hearing people want to participate in all of this. We are hard-working citizens who pay our taxes and like to unwind at the end of the week, just like everyone else. We want to chat with our friends about the current movies, not watch them later when no-one is talking about them any more.

It is not just the Deaf and hard of hearing people who miss out, but their friends and family too. It is a great source of frustration to my partner and son that they cannot go to the movies with me. Both of them love going to the movies, and it breaks their hearts to leave me at home knowing they’re off to see a movie I’m itching to see. Then when it comes out on DVD, they’ve already seen it, and I have to watch it alone.

Because of the extent to which deafness is ignored in our society, systems are not designed with us in mind. Train stations have aural information about the timing of the next train, but often skip the visual that would allow us access. Courses are designed without access in mind, and when we want to attend, it’s a struggle for us to convince educators to accommodate us. Conferences and festivals are routinely held without a thought to our access. When you consider the vast number of systems in our society that force deaf and hard of hearing people to miss out, movies are the last straw. We are tired of missing out.

The very articulate Karen McQuigg wrote an article about whether or not we should, as a society, be attempting to include deaf people. It was published in The Age here.Our government does claim that we should, but the attitudes of even liberal-minded people often get in the way.

It would be so straightforward, so simple and easy, so inexpensive, to switch on those open caption files, and include us. We deserve access, just like everyone else.

Surely if you ask nicely, the cinemas will provide open captions?

We’ve been trying for some years now, but action has been slow.  Here’s a conversation Alice Ewing had with Rennie from Westgarth Cinema, back in 2013. The conversation was conducted through the relay service, so Alice has a word-for-word record of it. I’m including it here because it highlights the typical confusion and bias surrounding the issue of providing access for deaf people.

Alice: Hello Renni, my name is Alice Ewing, and I am wondering how the Westgarth Cinema is able to provide access for people who are deaf?

Rennie: We do have a hearing loop and we do have some braille on the toilet doors. That’s about it really.

Alice: I’m talking about people who are deaf, not blind!

Rennie: Oh yeah, sorry, I just got confused. Interesting question… we don’t do the hearing impaired subtitles at all. And none of us that work here can sign.

Alice: Why not show captions, if you don’t mind me asking, please?

Rennie: We’re a smaller cinema. We only have three screens, so we just really can’t afford to show the captioned films.

Alice: Maybe you don’t know, but it does not cost a cent more to show captions on screen, as it is part of the movie rental. I would be more than happy to talk to you about this, as it has become apparent that the closed caption files, which some of the larger cinemas use through CaptiView units, can also be projected onscreen, by switching it on through the software.

Rennie: I’m well aware of being able to play open captioned films. I’m also an AV tech. It’s more [that] the English subtitles display at the bottom of the screen puts off a lot of customers. I’ve worked here for six years and this is the second time I’ve had a conversation about captions, and to me that reflects the demand on open captions and the [level of] interest. I can put that forward to my boss and the programmers, but I’m not the person who’s in charge of what content we show.

Alice: I was thinking it would be ideal to have a system where (and when) a deaf person wants to see a film, that the captions could be shown on request for that particular screening, or by arrangement, rather than having to schedule open-captioned screenings regularly with the risk that no deaf people may actually be present. I would certainly like to follow this up, as there is a demand, rather a big demand, for open captions, as the CaptiView units are not doing the job effectively, nor do they provide an enjoyable experience for the majority of deaf patrons. I would also like to highlight here that open captions not only benefit those who are deaf, but those learning English as an additional language, or those with other disabilities such as autism or learning disabilities. Certainly, it has been shown that children cannot access the captions through CaptiView, and it has effectively made cinemas inaccessible for deaf children since the open caption screenings were phased out three years ago.

Rennie: As I said before, I’m not the one to be talking to about this. I’m interested to hear what you say but I have no power to act on it myself.

(They go on to exchange email addresses and Rennie promises to refer this to someone who has the relevant power.) It is interesting to note that Rennie assumes customers will reject open captions, despite having had only two conversations on that topic in six years. His comment also highlights the need for people who care to make their desire for open captions known to cinemas.

Fast forward to February 2015, and Alice was still at it with Westgarth. From Westgarth Palace Manager, Alex Castro, she received an email that said, ‘As I mentioned on the phone, I have put forward the concept of regular OC screenings here at Westgarth. I will contact you once I have more information.’ However, despite repeated requests from Alice, Alex never got back to her.

Fast forward another year, to January 2016, and I received an email from Palace Cinemas in response to my request for open captions at Westgarth that said, ‘we have passed on your feedback to senior management regarding requests for open caption sessions.’

Really? What will it take? Do we expect a reply from ‘senior management’ this time?

What can you do about it?

Thanks to a swell of interest and outrage on Facebook, this issue is now capturing the attention of the media. Perhaps now we can go with the momentum and make 2016 the year that deaf people get to go to the movies regularly at last. Maybe this is the year that ’senior management’ will respond to our request. I personally believe that by asking one independent local cinema to trial screening open captions could result in others cinemas following their lead. The top down approach hasn’t worked. Let’s try going from the bottom up instead.

If you care, here are some things you can do to help make it happen:

Write an email.

The kinds of things you could say in your email include:

  • that 1 in 6 Australians experiences hearing loss and deserve to watch movies too
  • people from multicultural backgrounds also enjoy captions
  • your personal experiences with being denied access to movies
  • your wish to be able to attend movies with people who currently can’t access them
  • your personal experiences with the CaptiView closed caption system
  • a request for open captioned movies, for example, a regular night a week where all movie sessions are captioned, or two sessions per week of open captioned movies as is now the legislation in Hawaii
  • if you are hearing and don’t require open captions, you could mention this and that you would be perfectly happy watching movies with open captions, knowing that the deaf people in our community could access them too. (If you only do one thing, send a one-liner saying this!)
  • include a link to this blog post, which explains the issues involved

Send your email to:

Post your email on Facebook, including a link to this blog post and a suggestion that others might like to write emails too.

If writing an email is too much for you, you could simply share this post on Facebook. That would help to spread the word.

If we don’t get action this way, I’m thinking about a sit-in at the cinema. If you’re interested in joining us, I can send you an email. Sign up for my email list here:

Thanks folks,


2 thoughts on “It’s time for Open Captions – real access to movies for Deaf people

  1. El

    My hearing son has often preferred to watch things with the captions turned on, especially when he was younger. We found out relatively recently that he is on the autistic spectrum. I didn’t know it was common for people with autism to follow movies better with captions, but it makes sense. I remember some years ago my mil was insisting that he didn’t need the captions on when he was the only person who wanted to watch that particular dvd anyway. I don’t know why some people have such an objection to them. It is very uncommon for the subtitles to actually cover up an important detail on the screen.
    We don’t get to the cinemas much, partly because it has never really been my top budget priority and now also because I have some disability access issues of my own that are not particularly easy to solve. I hope the campaign for open captions at movies is successful.



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