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.”

Peter Fray

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