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Accessible Media: How People with Disabilities Enjoy Entertainment

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to watch a movie without sound? Or what about listening to a play without seeing what was going on? Some people may wonder how viewers with vision or hearing loss enjoy entertainment. Despite having an impairment, viewers with limited or no sight or hearing use their other senses to enjoy movies, tv shows, and plays. Accessible media adds to viewers’ experiences by providing a visual image of sounds or an audible depiction of visual elements.

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

  • Closed captioning (CC)
  • Described video (DV)
  • American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters

Accessible Media for People with Hearing and Vision Disabilities

Viewers who are Hard of Hearing

Viewers who are hard of hearing have a few different options when watching TV, movies, or plays. They may:

  • Watch TV using a hearing aid
  • Use an assistive listening device at a movie or live theatre
  • Watch with CC

Viewers who are Deaf

Television or Movies

Closed captioning is the method many viewers who are Deaf use to watch TV or movies. 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

Some programs create captions before a show or movie airs so that viewers with any amount of hearing can all enjoy the program. Viewers for other shows and movies can add captions later. Often, networks make captioning available when they broadcast shows live, but not on 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.

Movie theatres

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.

Live theatres

Several live theatres offer ASL interpretation at certain performances.

Viewers with Low Vision

Viewers with low vision 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.

Viewers who are Blind

Television or Movies

Viewers who are blind often watch TV or movies with described video. When DV is turned on, an added audio track plays along with the sound of the program, between segments of dialogue. The narrator on the track might describe:

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

Described video provides info that helps viewers more fully understand a show or movie. For instance, after a scene with angry dialogue and stomping, there might be the slamming of a door. Described video explains which character has stormed out and how the other characters react if they say nothing.

Like closed captioning, DV can be created when programs or movies air, or be added later. The feature is available for many shows, 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. This means that viewers cannot start using the feature independently.

Movie Theatres

Movie theatres offer a DV service for some movies using headsets programmed to play the descriptive track. Often, however, only one worker at a theatre is trained to know what these devices are and how to program them.

Viewers are able to watch shows and movies that are not described. However, they have to try to guess info 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. This option is sometimes less helpful than professional description because loved ones may accidentally talk over dialogue or forget characters’ names. On the other hand, loved ones especially good at it may accidentally start describing to sighted friends.

Live Theatres

For the most part, viewers who are blind rely on limited use of this kind of description during live theatre performances. 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.

Accessible Media is Evolving in Canada

Viewers who have vision or hearing impairments have many ways of enjoying TV, movies, and plays. Furthermore, Canadians with disabilities will experience even more accessible media come September 2019. The Canadian Broadcasting Regulatory Policy will require certain programming services to provide DV during prime-time hours. As a result, viewers will be able to enjoy more programs with accessibility features. Technology, other senses, and family and friends help people watch their favourite shows and keep up with the latest movies.