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Writing’s on the cinema wall when it comes to equal access

  • February 19, 2010
  • Bruce Bromley

Before I was five, like most people, I knew my place in the community and soon discovered many of its benefits, including access to the public library, swimming pool and, of course, the local cinema. If I had thought about anyone missing out on these basics, it would simply have been that there must be a good reason for it. That’s what entitlement means. People with disabilities would not have crossed my mind back then as they were still largely hidden from view in institutions. As for deaf people, I’d never met one.

Then a chance visit to the doctor when I was in my 30s resulted in surgery that, eight years ago, left me completely deaf. Acquired disability is a challenging thing. It is easy to think one has liberal ideas on disability and to applaud the recent drive to make communities accessible to the disabled. The confronting truth is that being on the receiving end of these attitudes is a different matter. On one hand, the message from government is that people with disabilities should have equal access to community life; on the other, the prevailing attitude from community organisations and industry, no matter how liberal in tone, is that allowing people with disabilities to come to your event is an act of largesse.

Having been sidelined from the community in their formative years, and denied decent access to education, health and leisure, many people who have grown up with a disability may unwittingly support this view. They may be encouraged by talk of how they can participate in community life, but hesitant about asking to access aspects of it, such as going to the movies.

The debate over cinemas refusing to provide a decent level of access to deaf, hearing impaired, blind and vision impaired people should be considered in this context.

Take audio description technology. This allows people with poor vision to have visual aspects of the movie described through headsets. It is commonly available overseas but rarely provided in Australia.

To vision impaired people, captioning for deaf and hearing impaired people must seem generous in comparison (in metropolitan Melbourne, apart from the independent Nova, one movie is shown three times over one week). Less publicised has been the impact on deaf people of unpopular time slots (10am Wednesday anyone?), lack of choice, location, and the cinemas’ refusal to give a time when the movie will be shown until the day itself.

This low level of access has been the norm for years. The tipping point came in November, when the four main cinema chains applied to the Australian Human Rights Commission for an exemption from the Disability Discrimination Act for 2½ years, in exchange for minimal access improvements. When the commission asked for public comment, more than 400 submissions were received from communities that until now have endured too much.

This is one of the first tests of state and federal governments’ stated commitment to inclusion.

Despite weekend protests outside cinemas of the big offenders – Greater Union, Hoyts, Village Roadshow and Readings Cinemas – it must be asked what chance these small communities have of succeeding against the wealthy cinema industry.

In a recent online posting supporting the government’s policy of refusing to accept people with disabilities moving to Australia, one commentator, said: “After the bizarre assertion that cinema-goers should have to endure subtitles for the benefit of the deaf … we have … some soft-headed rubbish about how we should celebrate profound disability as helping us expand our ‘view of how human beings should be’.”

Therein lies the rub. Now that people with disabilities are gamely stepping forward and saying, “I am entitled to go to the movies because I am part of the community”, it is going to be up to the majority to either support inclusion or not. The government must step up to the plate on the issue, or at least have the moral courage to tell it like it is so we know where Australia stands on this human rights issue.