Article: Seeing the Signs: Is it safe for the Deaf community to return to the cinema?

As cinemas re-open to the general public, Priscilla Igwe, director of The New Black Film Collective, writes about the challenges facing the D/deaf community and why greater access is needed more than ever before.

For one group of people, it is pretty much business as usual, as they contemplate going to the pictures for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. Meanwhile, the D/deaf community has been petitioning for better access and more captioned screenings way before lockdown.

Now with cinemas re-opening, for many D/deaf people, it is a case of balancing being safe and risking prolonged isolation or venturing out into cinemas, where they have to navigate new rules that might put up more barriers to participation than ever.

“There are 12 million people with hearing loss across the UK, that’s around one in six of us.”Action For Hearing Loss

One of The New Black Film Collective’s (TNBFC) core objectives is to champion intersectionality and we do that both with 888 Film Club (Signed/Silent/Subtitled Cinema) that serves BAME D/deaf audiences and Sign For All Community (SAFC), the latest addition to our diverse nationwide network of 40+ member organisations. SAFC was born out of the lived experience of Irina Drytchak, a CODA (Child of Deaf Adult), whose fond but frayed memories of growing up signing for her Ukrainian parents at the flicks, made her determined to prevent this from happening to other Deaf families.

Eager to give more insight, Irina translated responses from her Deaf users, colleagues and friends regarding the concerns they may have seeing films on the big screen since lockdown.

  • Kevin is of Caribbean heritage, a community activist and has appeared on ‘See Hear’ more than once discussing inequality. His feeling is that his race comes before disability in regards to his identity and he wants to see more screenings that have captions and BSL panels to enable interaction from deaf audiences.
  • Sahera is a Muslim poet, actress and filmmaker. She is finding that tickets are overpriced and has to travel far for subtitled screenings instead of attending her local cinema. Furthermore, culturally she does not want to see bad language, nudity, sex or violence, which can narrow down the choice even further. She wants to see less Muslims portrayed as terrorists and more Deaf characters in movies in general, opting to take her daughter to see child-friendly films instead. In the best of times, it is rare to see other deaf people visiting the cinema and for now she does not feel it is safe to go back.
  • Martin is mixed-race and a former architect. He is less certain of matters though he is desperate to return (as watching TV is just not the same) but he needs to feel secure. He prefers to go to the Barbican, as the auditorium is typically empty and finds that cinemas that offer subtitled screenings are not usually packed – so he has no concerns that the seats will be regularly cleaned in line with COVID-19 regulations.

A Frozen II screening hosted by Family Film Club

Masks and lip reading

The distinction has to be made between people who are Hard-of-Hearing (HoH) and those with hearing loss that are deaf with a capital ‘D’ (as they believe being deaf is more of a culture/lifestyle and signing is more than a mode of communication – it is also a form of self-expression). It gets even more complex when you then have to consider British Sign Language (BSL) as a second language for migrant groups.

Coupled with not being able to read English or illiteracy, puts them on a slippery road to being cut off from the rest of the world. As a major factor in their vulnerability to the Coronavirus (alongside race, age and socio-economic status), the Royal Deaf Association and Sign Health have created BSL videos explaining the recent updates, which are shared on Facebook for D/deaf people to access. Currently, there’s a debate as to whether the protection of wearing masks outweighs the ability to read lips and facial features whilst signing.

It is in this period that SFAC’s services should be in greater demand. Hence, Irina takes the time to talk about how it has affected her burgeoning organisation:

“Seeing the success of the 888 Film Club, led me to think about assuaging D/deaf parent’s fear of taking their children to the cinema. They are concerned that the hearing audience would find them irritating, as D/deaf children are likely to make sounds or are louder when they verbalise, which is completely normal but can disturb a screening. There is also a tendency to use mobile phones for its light to see each other or texting to ‘chat’ in the auditorium. Pointing and brusqueness are other common behavioural traits that might seem rude but are a result of not having the same mainstream social upbringing (this is of course true of adults as well). Therefore, I set up ‘Family Film Club’, funded by the National Lottery and BFI, to partner with cinemas in London and the Midlands in delivering monthly, subtitled screenings for families. I also offered staff at these venues basic deaf awareness training and BSL, such as greetings and key words, especially as they need to interact with D/deaf people when purchasing tickets, buying snacks or making enquiries. However, due to COVID-19, this has been placed on hold.

“During lockdown, it is clear that education for D/deaf and CODA children is an imperative. I have been working on YouTube educational videos linked to cultural issues, whilst understanding the importance of employing interpreters from a diverse background to increase engagement, sensitivity and nuance to the online learning.

“Ultimately, D/deaf people have tuned into Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and the newly established Disney Plus, as they are able to access subtitles. The use of digital platforms such as Facetime, Whatsapp video call and Zoom has helped with communicating. Unfortunately, for the older D/deaf generation, who are not so tech-savvy, this has been much harder and are extremely isolating. As cinemas are re-opening it seems it is unlikely D/deaf and HoH people will attend unless there is improved accessibility and many more for subtitled slots.”

Industry-wide response

Phil Clapp, Chief Executive of the UK Cinema Association, stated that they were in talks with the likes of Action On Hearing Loss and gave their response on the subject:

“The challenges of delivering subtitled screenings and other aspects of accessible cinema under the safeguards required by government are ones we’ve been thinking about for a while, although only since the final guidelines were published last week…have we had the detail necessary to make any final judgements.

“While the commitment to accessibility remains, the reality is that public health considerations will always be paramount, and so some aspects of normal operation, such as providing assistance to customers in wheelchairs for example, will need to be amended if they are to be possible.”

Looking at the some of the safety measures noted in “Cinemas – keeping workers and customers safe during COVID-19 by UK Cinema Association”, it appears that D/deaf audiences should expect extra signage and visual aids whilst being alert to aerosol (by air) transmission, contactless payments, self-check-ins, pre-ordering and one-way systems. Venues have been advised to have ‘social distancing champions’ but it is not clear if they will be trained to assist people with disabilities.

Helen Wright, Festival Coordinator of the Scottish Queer International Film Festival (SQIFF), which is highly advanced in this area, has this opinion:

“With an ongoing public health crisis disproportionally impacting Disabled people, it’s more important than ever to address the sustained lack of access this group has to film culture. It is still the case that the majority of events lack basic access for many, which is a legal as well as ethical concern. To address this effectively, a change in attitude and approach is essential. Simply put, access for Deaf and Disabled people needs to be integrated across organisations and events rather than treated as an extra or afterthought.”

Nonetheless, it makes sense that D/deaf people are listened to and put in the forefront of our minds. When “more than 40% of people over 50 years old have hearing loss, rising to 70% of people over the age of 70” (Source: Action For Hearing Loss), we should be thinking about the implications of joining such a vibrant community sooner than later.

The New Black Film Collective (TNBFC) is a nationwide network of film exhibitors, educators and programmers of Black representation on screen.  

Sign for All Community LTD provides awareness and accessibility for D/deaf families; we work closely with the Deaf community to enrich the lives of D/deaf and hearing families and children. We offer a range of services such as Deaf and Hearing Father Support Group, BSL Storytime, D/deaf and CODA Children Workshops, Educational Videos and Family Film Clubs.

Main image credit: Rapper Signkid performing before the SAFC screening of Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse at Stratford East Picturehouse

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