Soon, Everyone May Be Able to Go to the Movies, Regardless of Disabilities

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.

Related posts:

Netflix sued for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act

Bills Push Access to Technology for Disabled

Guide to Rights Under Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Photo credit: David Fulmer


Clara Hamill
Clara Hamill5 years ago

This would be a great idea.

LMj Sunshine
James merritt jr5 years ago

Thank you for article.

LMj Sunshine
James merritt jr5 years ago

Thank you for article.

Terry V.
Terry V5 years ago


Gina H.
Gina H5 years ago

This is great but what would be even better along with it is when folks like Edna K. also have the technology necessary to do the job they qualified and trained for. Despite the ADA Act, many employers and businesses do lag behind meeting the needs of differently abled. That may be related to costs. I find that people who have learned visual gesturing and sign language still face a huge problem in the general public where most folks don't understand either. Edna K., doesn't your employer have a TTY people can call in to? Your idea using a text phone is fantastic! I hope your employer listens to you on this. It can open doors not only for you but so many others as well. Your employer would certainly benefit as well. Sometimes an iPAD with Skyping is a less expensive tool but then you need the person calling in to Skype too. I work for an organization that provides services for developmentally disabled and we have an instructor for VG/ASL who uses an iPAD and Skype to communicate with other hearing impaired people. I can't remember if he can type as well with Skype because he is usually signing.

Tobi W.
Tobi W.5 years ago

My disability makes it difficult to go to movies....I have PTSD and can't handle the volume changes! Right now the movies are undergoing a huge shift in technology from film/celluloid to digital, and so there will be changes coming soon. Now if only we could make those closed captions both literate and accurate!

Edna Kampe
Edna Kampe5 years ago

I am a hearing impaired woman. I am would like employers to give equal opportunity for all, not only to hire people but to provide the means necessary to do the job. In my cAse, I need a text phone since I Am unable to read lips on the phone. I am a phlebotomist who had to step down and make 5 dlls less as a housekeeper in the same hospital because it is very difficult to understand people on the phone. Please employers provide text phones for the hearing impaired.

Lin M
Lin M5 years ago

Yes it is about time to do more for the handicapped every place.

Jen Matheson
Past Member 5 years ago

This is great but if the Givernment are going to be inclusive they should also make an effort to make sure all movie theaters are really accesible for all people with disabilites and not just barely living up to the minimum standard. Also, a discont card of some sort might be a nice touch as many people with disabilities don't have a great deal of money [espically adults living on their own.]

John Mansky
John Mansky5 years ago

Thank you for the article...