Accomplished playwright Dr. Adam Pottle highlights need for captions in film theatres
Imagine that you’ve paid to see a movie in theatres only to have the sound not work for its entirety. You’d be at least a little miffed having spent that money and not having got what you paid for. Now imagine you complain to the management afterwards and find the only compensation offered to be another ticket to the same movie but still without functioning sound..
Dr. Adam Pottle – a deaf playwright living in Saskatoon – had a similar experience in late March while trying to view Jordan Peele’s Us at the Saskatoon Cineplex, as he relayed to CBC. This theatre advertised Us as closed captioned so Pottle requested a Captiview, a small device that sits in the cupholder and provides subtitles for the film. Unfortunately, Pottle’s Captiview didn’t work despite his efforts to troubleshoot. In the interview with, Pottle mentioned this isn’t an uncommon occurrence. After the film he confronted theatre management to explain the situation and ask for compensation only to be offered the same experience again, but for free this time (as if that was supposed to make up for something). Cineplex has since apologized for that response and explained it was not handled according to protocol, but some still feel that doesn’t make up for Pottle’s experience (or lack thereof). “I left the theatre livid,” he added, “I’d been robbed of experiencing a film that by all accounts is a modern horror masterpiece, and I wanted to enjoy their work on equal ground as my hearing peers.”
In a Carillon interview Pottle, sent a message about how he feels movie theatre companies have treated him.
“I like Landmark. They’re on the ball. The CaptiView machines don’t capture everything; some previews aren’t captioned, and there are always brief lapses during the main feature. If I had to choose a best experience, it’d be seeing Jordan Peele’s Us. Because it was a relief. I saw it first at Cineplex, but they had no captions. Cineplex couldn’t give a shit. They hide behind corporate platitudes but aren’t willing to engage in actual dialogue.”
Pottle later defined being “on the ball” in more detail.
“On the ball means considerate, aware. As soon as I ask for the machine, the employees smile and run to get it for me. They’re never condescending or patronizing. They’re just cool. I don’t know if theatres do this already, but having accessibility awareness training would be a boon for theatres, especially big ones like Cineplex. Also, having Deaf and disabled employees goes a long way. Big theatres with many screens have more options, so they could easily provide open captions on at least a few of them. There’s no excuse. Open captions help everyone, not just Deaf and hard of hearing people.”
I told a few of my friends Pottle’s story with the hope of gaining some other perspectives. In response to hearing management’s reaction to the scenario, Luke Huot commented: “If anything it shows the lack of commitment by whoever should be handling [the scenario], and should raise awareness about everyday struggles most people have never even worried about…as well as open eyes to a certain level of nonchalant effort put in to aid people who need it.” On July 3, 2015, the Canadian Association of the Deaf claimed 357,000 Canadians were deaf and 3.21 million were hard of hearing, encompassing roughly 10 per cent of our country’s population. Shocking, that 10 per cent of our country’s population is unable to attend the majority of public events and experience them to the degree a hearing individual can. There are a wide variety of sign languages used in Canada including American Sign Language (ASL), la langue des signes Québécoise (Quebec sign language), and Inuit sign language, yet I can’t remember the last time I saw a class being offered by anyone other than a deaf and hard of hearing association. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen sign language interpretation at public events either, be they publicly or privately funded.
In response to his experience and the treatment he received after, Pottle is calling for closed captions in all theatres to make theatre showings more accessible to the deaf, the hard of hearing, and those learning English whose comprehension levels would rise with the visible script. Cole Manz, an employee of Rainbow Cinemas, mentioned assisted hearing devices available at their theatre that give viewers a clearer quality of sound during the movie to aid those hard of hearing, though they only offer subtitles for films not in English.
“Some regular customers state that they find subtitles to be distracting during the film. I think, however, that having carefully specified subtitled events (showings) would help to circumvent this; those in need of subtitles would know to attend a different showing.”
Pottle said that the reasoning behind not accommodating those who are not hearing is not enough.
“I understand it takes some getting used to, but it’s ableist privilege to say no. It’s an excuse not to think, not to grow. And many hearing people who watch films with captions find that they understand more of what’s happening onscreen. Accessibility is a collective effort. Deaf and hard of hearing people have always had to conform to hearing normalcy. Asking for captioning, for the dignity of being able to follow a story on our own terms, is a small ask.”
The general worry expressed by theatres, it seems, is that less people would attend films in-theatre were there subtitles on every film.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a movie theatre having (subtitles) available even one or two showings a day but most movies play three to five times a day!” said Cassie Norton, sister to a Regina Cineplex employee. With that many showings it wouldn’t be difficult to have a few with subtitles and to alternate the showtimes, catering to various scheduling needs. This way those not wanting to see subtitles could go to regular showings and maintain their movie viewing experience, and space would be made for the deaf, the hard of hearing, and those learning English who would benefit from the visual aid. The opportunity is there to create a more accessible space, and it’s not a question of the time it’d take or the money – it’s a question of whether these theatres are able to put in the effort needed to create an inclusive space. The need to rise and fill the niche is there, and thanks to Dr. Adam Pottle the follow-through has been called for.