Back in 2000, I went to a screening of animated film ‘Chicken Run’ at a London cinema. It was the UK’s first English-language captioned show, aimed at people with hearing loss. (I’m profoundly deaf due to a hospital infection at birth). My parents and I were the only ones there, and I remember thinking ‘I wish my deaf friends were with me, they’d love it!’ It turned out that apart from including it on the poster outside, the cinema didn’t advertise the show, so nobody knew about it. We just happened to be passing and saw the poster.
Anyway, afterwards I wondered ‘Why can’t all films be captioned at the cinema, like they are on TV?’ So my parents and I investigated. It turned out that caption tracks WERE being produced – after the cinema release, in time for the films’ ‘home entertainment’ release. It appeared that film companies just needed to ensure that caption tracks were produced earlier, in time for the cinema release, and cinemas just needed to make use of those tracks – to put on some captioned screenings each week.
So we began to contact the relevant people, the gatekeepers who decide on such matters, to try to persuade them to do their very best to make cinema films and screenings accessible to film fans with hearing loss.
We reminded them that accessible, captioned screenings remove the disabling barrier, which can help people to escape feelings of inequality, if only for a few hours at a time. We said that captioned screenings enable film fans with hearing loss to ENJOY rather than endure the cinema experience.
We pointed out that captions can benefit people of all ages: Each year in the UK, hundreds of children are born with significant hearing loss. Thousands of young people have hearing loss. Our society is ageing, and with ageing, loss of some hearing is inevitable. Fact is, access to film – via captions – is something that we may all appreciate, eventually. Accessible screenings can help to achieve greater inclusion and community integration (and inspire more cinema visits).
We rounded up supporters to help and began building a grass-roots, sociable outreach initiative to help deaf children to socialise at cinemas with their families and friends. Over three years we built up a UK nationwide database – a ready-made audience of thousands of people interested in captioned cinema screenings. We hoped to one day introduce them to a vast network of accessible UK cinemas and supply of accessible films.
Everyone was aware that captions had been provided for ‘at home’ viewing for decades. It was known that children of all ages, including pre-school, and those with language-based learning disabilities, could benefit from on-screen captions. It’s a fact that captions improve foundational reading and literacy skills, such as phonics, word recognition, vocabulary acquisition, listening comprehension and fluency.
It seemed wrong that compared to TV, cinema was way behind in this area of accessibility. It was clear to us that captioned children’s films at cinemas could boost literacy skills in a fun and engaging way. Children’s films, with less challenging vocabulary, would be ideal for providing the literacy benefits of reading, while listening and watching. Most children’s films include songs, and as children like to sing along to songs and are curious to know the song lyrics, reading skills are practiced subconsciously.
We ran a nationwide petition in UK primary schools to gather the views of children with hearing loss and their families on accessible, captioned cinema.
The response was overwhelming. People nationwide expressed their wishes for deaf children in their community to enjoy the cinema experience with their peers. One school, with only 12 deaf pupils, gathered almost 1,500 signatures.
The nationwide petition, along with our surveys and progress reports on accessible films, screenings and audiences helped the UK film industry to compile its 2002 ‘Cinema Access Technologies for people with Sensory Impairments’ report, which led directly to the UK’s first ‘Cinema Access Scheme’ – a plan to make UK cinemas more accessible, utilising upcoming digital cinema solutions.
In 2004, impressed with our work, the UK film industry hired our non-profit sociable enterprise – YourLocalCinema.com – to run the marketing arm of the scheme – to promote accessible films and screenings nationwide.
Today, more than 20 years after my first English-language captioned cinema experience, my friends and I go to the cinema most weeks. It’s unusual for a popular cinema release NOT to have a caption track. Almost all UK cinemas show a choice of the latest films with captions each week.
The UK film industry now pays me to run the non-profit, multi-award-winning ‘YourLocalCinema‘ listings & information service that myself and my parents set up when I was nine. The popular website, supported by the BFI and film companies such as Disney, Warner Bros etc receives more than a million visits annually.
The service is unique in that its target audience – film fans with hearing loss – can find exactly what they’re looking for – all captioned screenings nearby – in a few clicks. No other cinema listings site offers the combination of clear, smartphone-friendly ‘captioned only’ listings with ‘auto-locate’; a YouTube channel with the latest trailers in an accessible deaf-friendly format; and excellent customer service with meaningful, engaging, accessible, deaf-friendly correspondence facilities that include text messaging, email, live chat, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and, if necessary, sign-language over Zoom.
Before 2000, the only way people with hearing loss could enjoy cinema was to watch a foreign-language film. Today, thanks to collaborative work between the UK film industry, YourLocalCinema, and charities representing people with hearing or sight loss, most cinemas are accessible. Each year more than 600 cinemas in the UK & Ireland provided around 80,000 English-language subtitled/captioned screenings of around 200 films. A nationwide audience of thousands of film fans with hearing loss, many accompanied by family/friends, helped cinemas generate an estimated million admissions from English-language subtitled/captioned screenings. More than £7m worth of cinema tickets.