A Night at the Movies

Christine Brown

It is Friday at the end of a busy week, and you open your daily newspaper or go on-line to check the latest movie listings. For millions of Ontarians, the choice of films will be almost too abundant. Yet, barriers to participation have made the simple, social, enjoyable act of movie-going impossible for many people with disabilities.

The movie industry has been slow to recognize this segment of their potential clientele. Today, many movie theatres (not all) have wheelchair seating, but even this degree of  access was hard won. The first legal decision in Canada affirming the right of wheelchair users to attend movies along with everybody else was handed down in Saskatchewan in  1981. Twenty years later, the issue was still the subject of bitter litigation.

Forcing  the  industry  to  create  wheelchair-accessible theatres is only one aspect of ending discrimination  in  the  movie  business. A  current case working its way through the Ontario Human Rights Commission involves access for individuals  who are deaf, deafened or hard of hearing. An organization called the Captioning Movies Now Coalition ( is seeking to have all movies available in captioned form.

There are two basic types of movie captioning. The first is open captioning, i.e., captions which appear at the bottom of the  screen and which can be seen by all viewers. The second is rear- view (closed) captioning, whereby captions are projected “invisibly” from the back of the theatre. Patrons who require captions simply pick up a small Plexiglas screen which plugs into their cup holder. By adjusting the angle of the screen, the individual viewer can capture the projected captions, and watch the  movie and the captions at the same time.

It sounds simple, and it is: the technology is improving all the time. Unfortunately, the movie industry has been far too slow in making these tools available. Moreover, deaf, deafened or hard-of-hearing movie buffs – those fortunate enough to live near an appropriately equipped cinema, that is –  typically find that their choice of film has  already  been  decided  for  them.  The  one “accessible” film will be whichever money-making blockbuster the company deigns to choose.

Rare, too, is the movie experience where bar- riers have been removed for patrons with visual impairments. “Video  description” is  a  process whereby the video portion of a film is described verbally,  on  tape.  The  narrative  will  include a  description of  the  setting, action, costumes, facial expressions, etc. The moviegoer listens to the narrative through a headset  while the film is  running. The  description is  typically timed such that it can be heard between segments of dialogue, thus  enabling the listener to  take in both the audio and the (described) video aspects of the film.

According to Statistics Canada, between April 2004 and March 2005, Canadians paid over 118 million visits to movie theatres. A night out at the movies with family or friends – a small pleasure that none of us should be denied.