Skip to main content Skip to main menu

Accessible Media: How People with Disabilities Enjoy Entertainment

Some people may wonder how viewers with visual or hearing disabilities enjoy movies, tv shows, and plays. Accessible media gives viewers access to audio or visual elements of a show, movie, or play, through their other senses. In other words, accessible media means finding different ways to depict the audio or visual aspects of media.

Below we outline how people with hearing and vision disabilities can watch TV shows, movies, and plays through accessible media, including:

  • Closed captioning (CC)
  • American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters
  • Audio description (AD)
  • Video transcripts

Accessible Media

Hearing Aids and Assistive Listening Systems

Some viewers watch TV, movies, or plays with communication devices, such as hearing aids or assistive listening systems. Theatres may have assistive listening devices for viewers to borrow while watching a performance.

Closed Captioning

Other viewers watch TV or movies with closed captioning (CC). When people turn on the closed caption feature on their televisions, part of the screen shows the visual elements of the show. The other part of the screen shows text that:

  • Displays all dialogue
  • Indicates sound effects
  • Briefly describes music

Movie theatres provide CC for many movies. Captions are screened at the back of the theatre. Viewers receive a small mirror so they can see the captions. Similarly, live theatres offer some performances with closed captions. Alternatively, live theatres show other performances with open captions. In this format, captions appear on a screen, so that any patron sitting near the screen can see them.

While some shows or movies include captions when the program first airs, other programs add captions later. In addition, many video streaming services provide captions. However, networks do not always include captions when they place shows on demand or on websites. This means that if viewers cannot watch an episode when it first airs, they may never watch it at all.

Sign Language (ASL) Interpretation

In addition, some TV shows include Sign Language interpretation. Likewise, some plays also feature a Sign Language interpreter. When theatres advertise which of their performances will include captions or interpretation, viewers can choose performances that will be most accessible.

Vision Aids

Moreover, viewers may sit near the TV screen, at the front of the theatre, or at one side if they have better vision in one eye than the other. Some viewers may use a magnification device such as a monocular.

Audio Description

Viewers who are blind often watch TV or movies with audio description (AD). When viewers turn AD on, an added audio track plays along with the sound of the program, between segments of dialogue. The narrator on the track describes visual elements of the program, such as:

  • Which characters are present when a scene starts
  • Scenery
  • What characters look like, do, or see
  • What is happening during montages with visual scenes and music
  • Credits

Audio description provides verbal versions of details that only appear visually. For instance, after a scene with angry dialogue and stomping, there might be the slamming of a door. Audio description explains which character has stormed out and how the other characters react if they say nothing.

Like closed captioning, AD is sometimes available when shows or movies air, and can be added to existing programs. Furthermore, the Canadian Broadcasting Regulatory Policy  requires certain programming services to provide AD during prime-time hours. Moreover, the feature is available on many streaming services, but not on demand or on all network websites. In addition, the process to turn the feature on may depend on a viewer’s ability to read and select options from an on-screen menu. As a result, viewers cannot always turn the feature on independently.

Movie theatres offer AD for some movies using headsets programmed to play the descriptive track. However, theatres often train only one worker to know what these devices are and how to program them.

Live Description

Some viewers who are blind watch shows and movies without AD. However, they have to try to guess visual details based on audible clues like dialogue, sound effects, or the mood of the music. They may also ask friends or loved ones to briefly describe what is happening on-screen.

For the most part, live theatre patrons who are blind rely on limited use of this kind of description during plays. Notably, the Stratford Festival offers live description at select performances using a device similar to the movie theatre headsets. In this case, a trained describer watches the same performance and describes visual details through a microphone.

Video Transcripts

Video transcripts sometimes include the text of both captions and audio descriptions. In this way, viewers who are deafblind have access to the sound and visuals of movies.

Technology, other senses, and family and friends help people watch their favourite shows and keep up with the latest movies.