Cinemas, Theatres and Sensory Disabilities

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014
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The current state of the relevant legislation does recognise the needs of people with disabilities within buildings such as auditoriums and cinemas. The inclusions to assist people with disabilities have, however, been somewhat limited in their scope.

Requirements for the provision of wheelchair seating spaces and accessible paths of travel to these, as well as the provision of a Hearing Augmentation Listening System (HALS) to assist people with hearing impairments have been present in the Building Code of Australia for some time, but are not without their challenges.

The need to provide wheelchair seating which is representative of the overall range of seating available in cinemas which are traditionally tiered to optimise sight lines for able bodied patrons, can be difficult to achieve when appropriate consideration has not been attributed to this issue early on in the planning phase.

Issues such as maintenance and checking, battery charging of components and staff knowledge in the support of HALS mean these systems often fail operationally in their support of people with hearing impairments over the life of theatre or cinema. Other issues such as stigma associated with equipment which is worn by a patron as well as the fact that amplification alone does not meet the needs of all people with hearing impairments further highlights the issues facing the current state of play.

There are also a number of omissions from the current requirements which can extend the services offered within these buildings to a broader range of people. Technologies such as audio description can allow a person with a visual impairment to participate in the cinematic and theatrical experience. Captioning can provide a fail-safe access method for people with more significant hearing impairments.

Previously these technologies required additional equipment for their implementation and the captioning and description services were often simply not produced for a substantial number of cinema releases and major entertainment productions. This area has, however, quickly evolved in recent years, and continues to evolve making the uptake of such services by movie and entertainment providers far easier and cost effective.

The advent and progress of digital technologies now means that captions and audio descriptions can be provided with the same media for cinema releases and played with relatively standard equipment within cinemas.

Additional equipment such as Doremi’s CaptiView closed captioning system allow a screen displaying captions to be mounted in the drink holder of a cinema or theatre seat. Relatively mainstream audio receiver and headset equipment can be used to receive and play audio which includes the description components. Standard tablets and mounting equipment have also been used to provide closed captioning.

Open captioning involves the display of captions on the cinema screen or on a screen adjacent to the proscenium of a theatre, sometimes within the set of the production itself, allowing everyone within the theatre to view them. Many users prefer open captioning and sessions are sometimes scheduled at select cinemas and theatres offering this as opposed to closed captioning technologies alone.

Years ago, very few theatres offered these services. The advances made in the relevant technologies as well as vocal lobbying by many disability agencies and consumers with disabilities to industry now sees approximately 115 cinemas across Australian provide captioning. What is now a relatively inexpensive investment opens up these services to whole new audience which was previously removed from the experience altogether.

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