Failing to listen: subtitles, accessibility and the movies

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Why are so many big companies not getting the message about subtitles and accessibility for their releases? Charlotte Little explains the problems.

You just bought your favourite film on Blu-ray. It’s now yours to cherish forever and watch to your heart’s content. Fast forward the trailers, press PLAY, and grab a handful of popcorn. However, this smooth transition isn’t the case for every movie lover, with many deaf individuals fiddling with the languages section to select ‘ENGLISH SUBTITLES FOR THE DEAF AND HARD OF HEARING” or blind and visually impaired viewers opting to turn on audio description (AD).

In the UK, too many cinemas have been failing to meet the needs of audience members who require captions or audio description, with less than 2% of screenings providing captions in certain regions. Not every film has a subtitle or audio description track available, with many distribution companies failing to communicate the availability of such features to cinemas. Film production and distribution companies don’t always prioritise inclusion and accessibility, perpetuating a systematic afterthought of disabled viewers that is prevalent in both the mainstream and independent film industry.

The emergence of popular streaming services and revolutionary award-winning films such as Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite are catalysing a social shift, with the general public gradually becoming less hostile towards text on a screen.

Due to the limited number of accessible cinema screenings (back when cinemas were open), many disabled individuals wait until the digital or disc release of a particular film so that they can fully experience the film according to their needs, and accommodate their cinematic experience.

On Disc

In 2020, we would like to expect that every modern disc release of a film will provide additional languages, captions, and audio description for audiences to select if need be. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

These last few months, I’ve purchased five DVDs from a major film retailer, with all five discs failing to provide accessibility features. The bizarre thing is that some of the DVD cases state that captions are available, whereas the other DVDs provided no confirmation at all. These were all films that I couldn’t access online or watch in cinemas due to the lack of captioned showings. The accumulation of these experiences is frustrating, having had many highly anticipated movie nights punctured and deflated because it turns out the film isn’t accessible for people like me.

Can distribution companies be held accountable for their failure to create accessible content? The Consumer Rights Act 2015 is an Act of UK Parliament that merges existing consumer protection laws while providing consumers with new rights and remedies to exercise.

Chapter 2, Section 11 relates to ‘goods sold not as described’, with the Act applying to digital downloads as well as physical goods. Fortunately, most retailers offer refunds for their products which means disappointed movie lovers should be able to get their money back. If a distribution company is regularly advertising their disc releases as containing accessibility features when this isn’t actually the case, consumers should be able to claim that these goods are ‘sold not as described’, but this is for the court to interpret.

There doesn’t seem to be any legislation in the UK explicitly addressing accessibility features on DVDs and Blu-rays, meaning there is no law complying UK based distribution companies to make their releases accessible.

The lack of legal clarification implies that members of the public can’t hold these companies accountable for producing discs that do not contain accessibility features. There’s clearly a gap in this legal area, where development is needed to meet the current needs of disabled consumers.

Digital Options

The way we watch movies and TV shows has drastically evolved within the last decade, with streaming services and on-demand television changing the way we watch material (not least over the past few months). Netflix has cemented the concept of ‘binging’ due to its practice of releasing an entire season rather than releasing an episode weekly. Netflix and BBC iPlayer have also lent a hand in increasing the popularisation of captions, making all of their material accessible for deaf audiences.

Many hearing viewers are opting to switch on captions for a variety of reasons, with the excuse to eat crisps loudly being a popular answer. It’s evident that captions aren’t just a resource for deaf people, with numerous research studies finding that captions can improve reading skills, literacy and information retention.

Amazon Prime Video is another major streaming service, allowing members with a Prime membership to access and stream a variety of films and shows acquired by the firm. Yet it’s become glaring that a large portion of Amazon’s catalogue doesn’t provide captions or audio description, despite members paying a monthly subscription.

There have been numerous occasions where a film on Prime Video has been described as containing captions, but this has been false information. Amazon Prime Video is poised to pull in a revenue of $3.6bn in 2020 worldwide, yet it feels like at least half of its material is inaccessible for deaf or blind subscribers. Why is this not being talked about? Why are these companies not being held accountable for failing to provide a service for disabled consumers? Why is there not a regulatory body to monitor this?

The Office of Communications, or Ofcom, is the UK’s regulatory authority for broadcasting and telecommunications across the nation. Ofcom has a code of conduct for television access services, specifying minimum content levels for mandatory subtitling, signing and audio description. Currently, this only relates to television services rather than streaming or on-demand platforms.

Action On Hearing Loss organised a pioneering campaign, ‘Subtitle It!’, which led to the government creating a new law authorising Ofcom to set quotas for the quantity of on-demand television that must be captioned. Ofcom has now published its recommendations to the government, calling for up to 80% of content to be subtitled across the majority of broadcasters within four years of the regulation’s enforcement. Films such as Parasite and A Quiet Place prove just how profitable films with subtitles can be, and how there is a public demand for these screenings.

Cinema is an experience that should be afforded to everyone. If cinemas aren’t meeting these expectations, it should be an upheld standard that alternate accessible forms are produced as a backup. Reform is needed to match the ever-changing social shifts and consumption of content, and inclusion and accessibility should become the pillars of these industries.


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