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Closed off captions: cinema human rights award causes disquiet

The decision last week to award a human rights award to Australia’s Big Four cinemas has caused disquiet among those they have supposed to have helped, says deaf former member of the Action on Cinema Access group Karen McQuigg.

A visit to the movies to see those summer blockbusters doesn’t typically qualify as a human rights issue.

But article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects the right for everyone to freely “participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts” and all articles express values people need in order to have a good life — dignity, equality, fairness and universality. That is why the decision late last year to award the 2012 Human Rights Business Award to Australia’s Big Four cinemas —  Hoyts, Village, Event/Greater Union/Birch Carroll & Coyle Cinemas and Reading Cinemas — has caused disquiet.

On the surface the award sounds well-deserved. The cinemas were recognised for their work rolling out a new technology named CaptiView that allows blind, deaf and hearing impaired patrons (or HI) across Australia to enjoy more access to captioned cinema than they previously had. At awards time 74 cinemas across Australia were capable of showing movies that blind/vision impaired people could hear described through headphones and that deaf and HI people could access by captions.

But the rollout of CaptiView has been problematic. For one thing, it was introduced with no consultation. Deaf and HI people were happy with open captioning — the name for captions that show on screen — and wanted more access. What they got instead was an untested new technology.

CaptiView does not provide captioning per se. It requires viewers to look up and down between the device beside them and the cinema screen. Quite aside from the social stigma of having to hand in ID to use a unit, and the unwieldiness of the device, many deaf and HI people have struggled. Deaf children especially have found the constant refocusing difficult, and feedback on social media has indicated people have experienced neck strain and headaches. Others complain of untrained cinema staff, a continuing limited choice of movies and a history of breakdowns.

The loss of open captioning was never agreed to. It was the cinemas who implied it is no longer possible. This is now being questioned. Many want at least some access to open captioning back. They point to its ease of use, universality of access and the fact research suggests that on-screen captions are beneficial for literacy acquisition. There is interest in exploring the viability of converting CaptiView cinema files to display onscreen.

Because of a perception that cinemas believe that open captioning puts hearing audiences off, other options have also been suggested, such as Sony captioning glasses, popular overseas, or Rear Window Captioning. A variety of options may be the best approach.

Unfortunately, the Cinema Advisory Group set up to oversee the rollout of CaptiView has been unwilling to discuss alternatives, preferring to focus energy on implementing its system. Deaf and HI representative groups hope that once the rollout of CaptiView is complete the cinemas may be willing to discuss alternative options. The topic has been contentious as their constituency has become frustrated. A class action against the cinemas has started, led by the Disability Discrimination Legal Service and some people are wondering if the fast rollout of the technology is designed to pre-empt DDA complaints against the cinemas.

Over time the much-touted “cinema implementation plan” has started to be viewed as a quick political fix to a campaign by deaf and HI people for more cinema access.

While it is too late to turn back the clock, it is not too late for ACAG to engage with deaf and HI cinema goers more readily than has occurred to date. This is particularly so in the case of young deaf and HI children who need a connection to community life.

As one young girl commented a while ago about missing out on going to see Twilight with her friends because it wasn’t shown with captions: “I have to stay at home sitting on my chair waiting for my friends watching the movie. I don’t get to see it. It’s not fair.”

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  • 1
    Alice Ewing
    Posted Monday, 7 January 2013 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Karen, a nice summary of the issue and I am with you on that a multi-pronged access system is absolutely necessary in order to provide true access to the broader community and not just a certain demographic.

    The solution will be best achieved through direct consultation and collaboration between the cinemas and with the consumers requiring access.

  • 2
    Ant Lill
    Posted Monday, 7 January 2013 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    I am quite miffed to see an award going to the Big 4 and Captiview when it isn’t deserved, in fact its quite the opposite, Deaf people are being discriminated against. We were reasonably happy with Open Captions and we did not want Open Captions to disappear. Now we have an even worse system and we are told that we are stuck with it. By comparison to Open Captions the Captiview system is difficult to use - its not relaxing at all and entertainment is supposed to be relaxing. Even compared to Rear Window Captioning, Captiview falls way short in delivering captions that are easy to see. I challenge the managers of the big 4 to use captiview for a month and see how soon they stop using it out of sheer exasperation.

  • 3
    Adelaide Ryan
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 3:13 am | Permalink

    Good concise article.

    The concerns raised to the relevant bodies (cinemas, AHRC, government etc) about the issues surrounding the rollout of CaptiView and how the quality of access to cinemas since the phase out of open captions became severely limited as opposed to “providing more captions to screens” have been largely ignored.

    The fact the AHRC awarded the Big4Cinemas a human rights award in the business category is very disappointing, and in some cases upsetting, for deaf and hearing impaired who have made the effort to provide feedback to all relevant bodies (cinemas, AHRC, MP J Lucas) and nothing has been acknowledged.

    Someone gave a perfect analogy of Captiview as being in the same category as driving and texting (which is illegal to hold a mobile phone while in a driver’s seat in NSW). Using this anaolgy, you are watching the movie and at the same time you are shifting focus to the small screen Captiview in order to understand what the movie is about. How is that enjoyable? Not mentioning all the technical issues involving the captiview (some words drop out, some words are not included, or some words are paraphrased, or the device does not even work in some cases). Not mentioning the limited time/movie “accessible” sessions available or is poorly advertised.

    It seems silly that I am making such a big deal about cinema access, but when you can’t effectively enjoy the movie or don’t have the access you desire, it becomes an issue in terms of inclusion and social connectiveness for deaf and hearing impaired people.

    Cinemas are supposed to be inclusive and entertaining for everyone and open captions (on the movie screen) provide that for the deaf and hearing impaired patrons.

  • 4
    Michael Lockrey
    Posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    The biggest disappointment I have with this major Human Rights award being given to the Big4 Cinemas is that they have achieved this outcome by doing the absolute “bare minimum”.

    With a terrible track record on accessibility spanning more than a decade, the Big4 cinemas were dragged, kicking and screaming to the table by Bill Shorten and forced to implement a “solution” (aka the rollout plan we now have in place).

    The big4 cinemas quickly locked in a “closed captioning” technology (CaptiView) - perhaps a little too quickly and a little too tightly - as there doesn’t seem to be any scope to use other emerging technologies (even open captioning) within the Big4 cinemas.

    It appears to have been driven not by accessibility considerations (as you would usually expect as there was very little testing and consultation with consumers beforehand) but rather by what the Big4 cinemas themselves were most comfortable with.

    i.e. a “closed captioning” technology rather than an “open captioning” approach (which they believe could upset other patrons, etc).

    As one commentator above (Adelaide) notes, CaptiView is akin to texting while driving and it can be very stressful and also a wholly ineffective mode of accessibility for consumers who are Deaf or have a hearing loss.

    There’s also been very little promotion within the Big4 cinemas of the CaptiView service and you will need to block out 2-3 hours in your diary to try and find out whether there’s an accessible session with closed captions on at your local Big4 cinema as there’s very little advertising, the Big4 cinema apps for smartphones and their mobile websites do not include this information and most front-line cinema staff still rarely have a clue what CaptiView is.

    How does this constitute “excellence” in cinema accessibility for people who are Deaf or have a hearing loss?

    An “Encouragement Award” would have been a tad more appropriate?

  • 5
    Barnaby Lund
    Posted Wednesday, 9 January 2013 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    While I’m grateful that cinema accessibility is finally on the government’s radar, I’m very disappointed with the way ACAG and the Big 4 have rolled out captiview technology with no consultation with deaf and hard of hearing consumers.

    I have personally experienced the failings of captiview a number of times and know of many other consumers who have tried multiple times to secure and use captiview to enjoy movies, only to be given reimbursements or free tickets because the device failed or the caption files were not available despite the movie being advertised CC.

    The key problem here, aside from the physical difficulties of using the device and the lack of devices to cater for large groups, is the complexity of the current system. Cinema staff are not properly trained, devices are often faulty and obtaining a device is a matter of pot luck - how does one get a device without ID? Do hearing patrons show ID? No. Where is equity in this?

    If this is what ACAG thinks accessibility is in 2012, then they are sorely mistaken.

    But there are options to improve this situation: have the Big 4 commit to Open Captions for a proportion of all sessions shown. Remove the requirement to show ID. Redesign the captiview devices so they are reliable, make the system work with new technology - augmented reality glasses (I.e google glasses) and split screen technology are two examples. And critically, train cinema staff and ensure movie distributors make captions available via an online database.

    This is not rocket science people.

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