For blind, visually impaired, d/Deaf, and hard of hearing media consumers, just getting a chance to watch media can be an uphill battle, because captioning and audio descriptions are not always made available. After a long fight, television is captioned, and in 2010, Congress passed a bill mandating captions for online content as well, but what about when you go to the movies?
Blind and some visually impaired cinemagoers rely on audio descriptions to tell them what’s happening on screen so they can enjoy the movie along with everyone else, and such descriptions can be provided discreetly with individual equipment allowing them to listen to an audio track alongside the movie. For d/Deaf and hard of hearing moviegoers, both open and closed captioning systems are available so they can get descriptions of sounds on screen, as well as captions of what people are saying. Yet, many movie theaters don’t provide this technology.
That could be about to change, thanks to Senator Tom Harkin, a steadfast advocate for disability rights, who introduced two bills in Congress this week to expand mandates for captioning and audio descriptions. One covers movie theaters with two or more screens, and the other addresses in-flight entertainment. They would amend the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990 to increase full access and inclusion for disabled people in the United States.
This is great news for captioning campaigners like Marlee Matlin, who has been fighting for years to increase captioning across the media in the United States with the goal of ensuring that disabled media consumers have equal access rights. Audio descriptions and closed captioning don’t just benefit disabled people, but also anyone who might have trouble following what’s going on, for a variety of reasons; for example, captioning on television is often used in crowded environments like airports where it’s hard to hear, but people need or want to follow what people are saying on screen.
Increasing the areas in which captioning is required reduces the burden on disabled people to check and recheck the accessibility of a venue; instead of having to travel long distances to find a movie theater that will accommodate them, they could go to the movies along with their nondisabled counterparts. Anything less, Matlin and others have noted, amounts to discrimination, barring disabled people from full, equal, and free access to society, and enjoyment at the movies; accessibility is about having fun as much as it is about the right to meet the daily needs of life, and sometimes you just want to go to the movies to unwind and enjoy a story.
Both bills have been referred to committee, and thus it’s by no means certain that they will be brought to the floor for a vote; and even then, they have to successfully pass and make it to the White House for a signature. They are, however, a step in the right direction. Harkin and Congress are recognizing both that disabled people have a right to equal social access, and that the changing landscape of society is necessitating an expansion of ADA rules. Technologies for tools like open and closed captioning as well as audio descriptions are constantly getting better, more affordable, and easier to work with, which eliminates many of the supposed barriers to their full implementation.
Those arguing that captioning and audio transcripts aren’t practical are increasingly finding themselves arguing purely for discrimination, as these technologies are growing ever more practical. The United States may face a not-too-distant future where such accommodations are ubiquitous rather than rare, which will be something for all of us to celebrate.
Photo credit: David Fulmer
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