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Subtitled screenings in cinemas – the only way to increase access now

Our open letter to the UKCA – do more to make cinemas inclusive for deaf people now.

We are disappointed with the UK Cinema Association’s (UKCA) efforts to improve access to cinemas for those who are deaf or have hearing loss.

The only way that deaf people and those with hearing loss can currently access cinemas is through more subtitled screenings.

Shockingly, BBC’s Rip Off Britain (series 14, episode 3, 4 May 2022) highlighted that the number of subtitled cinema screenings is incredibly low. They found that across four cities in a week, Odeon only subtitled 17 of 920 screenings (1.8%), Cineworld subtitled 12 of 1070 screenings (1.1%) and Vue subtitled 8 of 819 screenings (0.98%).

The UKCA’s temporary increase of subtitled screenings during Deaf Awareness Week was not enough to improve access to subtitles, and data from the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) showed that a quarter of UK cinemas failed to show any subtitled screenings during Deaf Awareness Week. This is not good enough.

Previously, we have partnered with the UKCA on several initiatives, including their Technology Challenge which aims to find technology-based solutions to improve access to cinemas for people who are deaf or have hearing loss. But there has been a failure to prioritise pushing for subtitled screenings, and we have seen no improvement in the accessibility of cinemas, or to the lives of the 12 million people in the UK who are deaf or have hearing loss and the 7.1 million who have tinnitus.

We believe that increasing subtitled screenings is the best way to improve access and will have a bigger impact for our communities more quickly. We are therefore suspending direct engagement with UKCA on their Disability Working Group but remain open to working with cinemas directly to increase subtitled screenings, and the UKCA if they are able to show that they are committed to making cinemas accessible for everyone, now.

Read our open letter to UKCA

Mr Phil Clapp
Chief Executive, UK Cinema Association

Dear Mr Clapp

I’m writing to let you know that, given the lack of meaningful progress in our work together, we have decided that we will no longer be an active part of your work on accessible cinemas.

As an organisation, we are disappointed with the lack of engagement with us over the last three years, and the lack of real action taken to make cinemas accessible for people with hearing loss. At times, commitment to this work has felt shallow and tokenistic, and we believe we can make more progress for our communities by working directly with cinemas.

Deaf Awareness Week

The UKCA’s decision to increase the number of subtitled screenings during Deaf Awareness Week – but then drop back to original numbers after the week is over – is one example of that tokenistic approach. In fact, looking at the Accessible Screenings website, it appears that subtitled screenings during this week are in fact still incredibly rare.

Ahead of Deaf Awareness Week, we were clear that a temporary uplift in subtitled showings is simply not good enough and would not be received well by deaf people and people with hearing loss. The negative response from our partners and communities to this activity is not a surprise, and I sincerely hope that the UKCA are listening and will take note of the reaction.

Technology Challenge

RNID had been a partner in the UKCA’s Tech Challenge, since 2018 but the lack of updates and progress to the panel in the last two years led us to decide to step away from the project, but we were clear we remained happy to engage with you on promotion of subtitles in cinemas which we feel could be used to improve access to cinemas for deaf people now.

The UKCA made a comment last week saying that subtitles and technological solutions were not “an either/ or” and with this in mind, we are keen to know why there has been such slow progress on the delivery of screenings with subtitles across cinemas in the UK, and why the UKCA has not engaged with concerns about the lack of provision of subtitled screenings in good faith on behalf of its members. Even under the new timeline of delivery for the Technology Challenge, deaf people and people with hearing loss will not be able to benefit from this new technology in the short term and the barriers to accessing cinemas will remain. The lack of forward movement within this group led us, as you know, to withdraw our participation in it back in January, as we believe focusing efforts on increasing and promoting subtitled screenings will have a greater impact for our communities.

Subtitle provision in cinemas

As highlighted on the BBC’s Rip Off Britain last week, across four cities, Odeon had 920 screenings, 17 of which were captioned (1.8%). Cineworld had 1070 screenings, 12 captioned (1.1%). Vue had 819 screenings, 8 captioned (0.98%). These figures fail to capture the timings for accessible screenings, which are typically limited to off-peak times. We would suggest that not only is this bad for accessibility, but it doesn’t make good business sense either. 1 in 5 adults in the UK are deaf or have some form of hearing loss. That’s a huge market to ignore. The success of international films such as Parasite and the film CODA which had embedded subtitles, show that audiences will turn up to screenings with subtitles.

We know that being able to participate in cultural events like cinema releases is hugely important to people who are deaf or have hearing loss, which is why we’re keen to see accessibility prioritised sooner rather than later. Of course, at RNID our door is open to any cinemas looking to make screenings accessible but for us to re-engage with the UKCA we would need you to demonstrate that you are serious about improving accessibility and are prepared to engage meaningfully with us and the community we serve. If you would like to discuss this further, you can contact our Inclusion Policy Advisor.

Kind regards,

Teri Devine

Associate Director for Inclusion

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