Let’s hark back to 2009. I think it was 2009 when the Big 4 Cinemas put in their application to be exempt from Disability Discrimination Complaints for five years. My recall is a little foggy but they had done a deal with our peaks, Deaf Australia and Deafness Forum, to increase captioning so that the deaf movie goer could access open captioning for movies that amounted to less than .5% (note the decimal point) of all movies shown. On the basis of this deal the cinemas made their application for exemption to Disability Discrimination complaints for five years. Quite rightly deaf people were insulted by the offer and almost 500+ Australians who are deaf, hard of hearing, Blind, vision impaired and their associates put submissions into the Australian Human Rights Commission to reject the Big 4 Cinemas’ application. Debate on the issue was immense on Facebook.
From all of this the Action on Cinema Access Group (AOCA) was formed, with support from Arts Access Victoria. AOCA commenced a skilled and intelligent campaign against the Big 4’s application for exemption. They distributed thousands of post cards and held rallies outside cinemas all over Australia. The rallies, that strongly voiced the needs of not just the Deaf and hard of hearing but also the needs of Australians who are Blind and vision impaired, received enormous national media coverage.
I remember that there was a great deal of scepticism about whether or not the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) would listen to the 500+ people that put in submissions imploring them to reject the Big 4’s application for exemption or whether the AHRC would be moved by the mass protests. Previous history had shown that such exemptions were more often than not granted. Surprisingly AHRC actually did listen to the consumer and threw out the cinemas’ exemption application.
More surprisingly, very soon after the announcement was made to deny the exemption, the cinemas – after nearly eight years of stalling – suddenly within weeks came up with a solution. It seems that prior to the announcement being made the then Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Disability, Bill Shorten, had been brokering a solution with the cinemas. One suspects that the AHRC were involved too, although this is purely speculation.
But anyway after years of not providing, or indeed showing any willingness to provide above the bare minimum in captioning, the cinemas suddenly came forward with a PLAN. Not only would their solution provide captioning but it would also provide audio description for the Blind and vision impaired. This meant that for the first time the Blind and vision impaired would have access to the cinema.
A special viewing was arranged at a cinema complex in Sydney to demonstrate the new closed captioning and audio description systems. At this meeting major deaf and blind representatives and peak bodies were present and tried the new systems. The systems were demonstrated for less than ten minutes in total using a bizarre demonstration film that did not equate to anything like the real cinema experience. Yet on the basis of this our advocates were expected to endorse the system.
Present at this initial demonstration were CEOs from the four major cinema operators (Hoyts, Greater Union, Village and Readings), and representatives from organisations representing Australians who are Deaf or hearing impaired, and who are Blind or vision impaired (Deaf Australia, Deafness Forum, Blind Citizens Australia, Vision Australia, Australian Federation of Disability Organisations, Arts Access Victoria and Action on Cinema Access), The Australian Human Rights Commission, the Minister for Department of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Economy and Parliamentary Secretary for Disability (who was at the time Bill Shorten). Key representatives from the Department of Family Housing Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) and Media Access Australia were also present.
Around this time the much-vaunted Accessible Cinema Roll-Out Plan began to be publicised. The plan aimed to have in excess of 200 cinema complexes providing accessible cinema by 2014. Quite naturally, although not having yet tried the new systems, Deaf, hard of hearing, Blind and vision impaired people, were celebrating. Access it seemed was just around the corner. All their efforts in protesting and writing submissions to the AHRC would bear fruit. Unfortunately the celebrations, at least for the Deaf and hard of hearing, were premature.
2010 records show that after this demonstration there was another meeting held in Melbourne with the same people and chaired by Bill Shorten. This meeting was called to discuss the formulation of what is now known as Accessible Cinema Advisory Group (ACAG) This group was set up to provide opportunities for the peaks and advocates to share their comments, views and expectations. Even at this early stage, records clearly show that there were more than a few concerns about the CaptiView system that the cinemas wanted to introduce to provide closed captions.
Deaf Australia (DA), for example, stated in a formal response to Bill Shorten:
“….We have a number of concerns about the technology and would prefer a final agreement that does not lock us into any particular technology but allows for changes, updates and improvements in technology.”
Arts Access Australia’s response was along similar lines. They had this to say:
“….We are concerned about the proposed use of CaptiView for the delivery of captioning and urge the cinema chains to consult further with a broader cross-section of the community before committing to this technology.”
Arts Access Victoria echoed the sentiments of Arts Access Australia,
“We are less confident of the use of this technology for the delivery of captioning to deaf and hard of hearing patrons. We would like to see the decision about the widespread roll-out of CaptiView predicated on the results of wide community consultation.”
Deafness Forum Australia was more concerned about viewers who would have to carry the technology into the cinema and set it up. They felt that this would discourage people because it would make them stand out, suggesting it would be an embarrassment. They also expressed concerns about the number of CaptiView devices available at each cinema and whether this would meet the demand of larger groups attending cinemas.
All of these concerns were ignored. All present were instructed by Bill Shorten at this meeting that they needed to work together and move forward ‘under good faith’.
As the roll-out proceeded, with much fanfare, it became obvious that there was a lot wrong with the system. Deaf people were implored to not be fussy and give it a go. They did but soon stories began to emerge that children found it hard to access, people who are deaf with vision impairments could not use CaptiView, some people were leaving the movies with stress related headaches from constant refocusing, tall people had to slouch to watch the movie and see captions on the device – the negative stories were seemingly endless. More concerning was the quality of the captioning was often inconsistent.
What is worse is that the system often failed and even three years into the roll-out the system is still failing. In the last month for example the following stories have emerged.
- There is a ridiculous story of a man with no less than eleven free cinema tickets because the system crashed on him or did not start every time he used it.
- The President of Deafness Forum Australia informed people on the Action on Cinema Access Facebook page of having got his third free ticket because the system did not work.
- Leigh-Anne told of how the CaptiView system twice stopped working in the movie. They then got a replacement unit which was flat.
- Bizarrely one viewer was allegedly charged $3 to use CaptiView.
The whole roll-out is degenerating into a farce. Positive stories exist but they are far outweighed by the negatives.
The failures of the system that we are witnessing are exactly why our advocates, in those early stages, advocated for caution and trials before committing to CaptiView. Yet despite the mounting formal evidence that many viewers dislike CaptivView and of increasing system failures all our advocates, with the exception of Action On Cinema Access, suddenly did an about face and endorsed CaptiView as the best technology going.
Perhaps they took a view that it was better working with the Cinemas and Government and work with what was available. Even so the response of these peaks is puzzling given the overwhelmingly negative feedback.
This is despite the fact that there were clearly other options which might have been better such as Rear Window or Sony Caption Glasses. But we will never know because trials of alternate technology will not be considered. Action On Cinema Access became the lone voice pushing for trials of other technology.
Yet despite the negative feedback our peaks have endorsed CaptiView and the accessible cinema roll out. In the face of mounting negative feedback there is no logical answer as to why given their earlier responses that indicated their concerns about the CaptiView technology. Of course Action On Cinema Access, which is completely voluntary and do not rely on Government funding, have continued to represent the voice of the consumer as strongly as they possibly can. Meanwhile the other peaks involved have inexplicitly endorsed the roll-out. Sadly, for their efforts to remain true to the consumer, Action on Cinema Access has been labelled divisive.
I am aware that recently Action On Cinema Access (AOCA) sent several emails to the Government demanding answers to several questions. For example, consumers, along with everyone on ACAG for over three years, were led to believe that Open Captions were not possible with the new digital servers purchased by the cinemas. This proved to be inaccurate. AOCA demanded answers on such issues as to whether other technology could be trialled and whether the Cinemas had locked themselves into a legally binding agreement to purchase only CaptiView units meaning that they could not consider the introduction of alternate technology.
The Governments answer was blunt. CaptiView was a ‘.not a trial’. It was a locked in ‘..roll-out..’ and that the only complaints we could make would be if the cinemas failed to roll it out as agreed in the Accessible Cinema Roll Out Plan. In short we have to lump it. Looking back on the records of that first initial meeting, it was clear no one indicated any endorsement of the approach we are now seeing today. The logical and sensible approach that was first advocated has been ignored.
The Big 4 Cinemas and the representatives of ACAG, with Action on Cinema Access the exception, are showing no respect or regard to the vast number (and growing) objections to CaptiView or of the sensible alternate suggestions being put forward by Australians who are Deaf and hard of hearing. Such suggestions have included trials of alternate technology and the retention of open captions in some form.
It is interesting to note that research by AOCA has indicated that open captions, or indeed any captioning, actually cost the cinemas nothing. Captions in various formats are apparently made available as part of movie rentals at no extra cost. The only additional cost is the purchase of devices such as CaptiView. It would actually be cheaper to retain open captions but the cinemas have a misguided view, which is not backed by any research, that open captions will put off hearing viewers from attending the cinema.
Hundreds and thousands of tax payer dollars are being handed out to the very profitable cinemas to assist them with the roll-out of CaptiView even though there are clear alternatives. The cinemas will not seriously make any effort to trial alternative technology. Hollow promises to “consider” alternate technology are amounting to nothing. This was one of the promises made by the cinemas to those present in the early stages of ACAG that was probably the deal breaker. Indeed the original ACAG terms of references actually mandated that other technology be seriously considered. This promise has clearly been broken.
AOCA are currently considering whether they should remain within ACAG or whether they are best served by lobbying outside the confines of ACAG. Before making the decision they have attempted to obtain feedback from stakeholders through its Facebook discussion page as to whether this is the best approach to take. Some have urged AOCA to withdraw from ACAG and some have urged AOCA to stay within ACAG to maintain a dialogue with the cinemas and the relevant representatives. The debate is still raging with 83 comments being recorded by midday on the 12th June. AOCA, with their limited resources, entirely voluntary and with no budget, are at least trying to consult. It should be a lesson to others who are involved.
It’s time that people who are Deaf and hard of hearing looked at alternate ways to be heard. Use the Opposition Shadow Minister of Disability, explore a class action or complain through the Australian Human Rights Commission. If you do complain through the AHRC be aware the Disability Commissioner has publicly backed the Accessible Cinema Roll-Out and thus aligned the AHRC with it. Any complaints through AHRC are likely to lead to nowhere. Do whatever it takes. This farce and continuous comedy of errors must end now.
# The author of this piece accepts full responsibility for the information within. Some may claim that the information is confidential. This is nonsense. The Accessible Cinema Roll Out Plan is being subsidised with tax payer money and many of the representatives within ACAG are funded with the tax payers dollar. Consequently the information within is seen as a matter of public interest.
As always if any of the information is considered inaccurate or the reader disagrees with it they are free to respond. All responses will be published. The Rebuttal does not censor.