The Open Captioning Accessibility War, and a Solution

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Photo by Myke Simon on Unsplash

Deaf people want subtitles (otherwise known as open captions) on every screen at the cinema. And they aren’t alone. Quite a lot of hearing people would like it too. Some autistic people want it.

People also argue it makes it easier for people trying to watch a movie in a foreign language.

So, why not just do it.

Subtitling Reduces Accessibility for Some People

Okay, so, here’s where it gets personal. I have something called hyperlexia. It’s a symptom of the autism spectrum (some doctors argue it should be a separate disorder under the overall umbrella).

Hyperlexism is somewhat hard to describe. I’m fortunate, in that I have the form in which I still comprehend everything I read. But I literally have a compulsion to read text I see. Yes, backs of cereal boxes included. I pathologically prefer communicating in text over verbally. No, I won’t call you. I’ll text you. Please text me.

But there’s another aspect to this.

If I am reading and somebody is talking, my brain’s language center refuses to process what the person is saying. In fact, it completely tunes it out. This means that unless the subtitles/captions are in a different language from the dialog, the captions make it impossible for me to hear the actors. Needless to say, this does not improve my movie-going experience. A Deaf person would argue that I get the same experience they do.

Other people find captions hideously distracting.

When you bring these things up, though, you’ll get “Well Deaf people are shut out, deal with it.”

What About Closed Captioning?

The solution of most theaters is to offer closed captioning devices. They are, however, bulky, uncomfortable (especially if you wear eyeglasses) and the batteries aren’t always turned on.

This might change as AR glasses slowly become more normalized, at which point closed captioning would merely be transmitted to the moviegoer’s own device, presumably using some kind of free app.

Closed captioning glasses are also becoming lighter and thus easier to wear, and most theaters now have them available on request.

One huge problem though is that this is dependent on the movie producers providing the captioning files. (That might be where the real battle should be fought.

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Photo by Erik Witsoe on Unsplash

What other Solutions Are There?

One obvious solution, at least for major movies, is to offer both open captioned screenings and regular.

This is theoretically being done, but the open captioned screenings are often at times that seem to assume Deaf people don’t work for a living. If a movie is on three or four screens, though? There’s no reason not to put open captions on at least one of them, as long as one screen is kept without them for people who have legitimate accessibility concerns (I’ve been told I’d adapt. I won’t. I have an actual disability here).

But that only helps with movies that warrant multiple screens. Another option would be to designate one or two nights a week as open caption nights, when all movies which have captions will be shown with them. But that’s still unfair on Deaf people, who should have the same right to go to movie showings at any time as the rest of us.

So, here are some thoughts:

  1. Open caption the main performance every other day through the movie’s run. This would make sure that there were both open captioned and non-captioned screenings on Saturday.
  2. For new theaters, make a captioning ticker that is below or above the screen. This would keep captions from covering part of the movie. It would make them easier to tune out for those who need them. The design would have to be done carefully, though.
  3. Introduce apps that beam captioning to people’s personal devices now. While not many people have AR glasses yet, some people would be happy to use their phone for closed captioning (this would also be a perfect solution for audio descriptions for the vision impaired).
  4. Maybe somebody can develop a reflective technology that shows open captions to, say, the left half of the theater? I have a feeling it could be done.
  5. “Rear-window” captioning is apparently preferred by quite a few Deaf and hard of hearing people. It still requires that you ask for a specific device, though. However, the device is a simple reflector inserted into the cup holder. Would it not be possible for this device to instead be something which folds into the arm of the seat and extends at the push of a button. People who want captioning just have to push a button. People who don’t, don’t.

My feeling is that until AR glasses become something most people just have, option 5 is the best solution to this particular problem. Because every seat has the device, Deaf and hard of hearing people don’t have to ask for anything special (making accessibility a Thing is generally bad). Everyone who needs captioning gets it. And nobody is thrown under the bus for somebody else’s needs.

Dueling accessibility is an issue very few people are aware of, but it is an issue.

(Also, can we make it a legal requirement to make both closed and open captioning files for all movies?)

Written by

Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades.

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