Deaf cinema resources

At least 1 in 6 people in the UK are affected by deafness. This number incorporates a wide range of experiences and forms of communication, but no matter the specific need, the d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing deserve to be able to enjoy the cinema.

In 2016, the ICO distributed Power in Our Handsan archive film project celebrating the history of the Deaf community in the UK. Screenings of the film were immensely popular, with several selling out. This project demonstrated that:

  • there was an untapped d/Deaf audience in the UK, who are interested in attending the cinema but

  • more needed to be done to include d/Deaf audiences in cinemas.

The ICO set out to find out what the barriers were to building a strong d/Deaf audience in cinemas in the UK. They conducted a survey of d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing audiences, a focus group of Deaf people and also a survey of exhibitors to understand their experience with developing d/Deaf audiences.

97.5% of respondents to the Deaf audience survey said they would visit the cinema more frequently if provisions were improved, so there is a great opportunity here that we are very happy to provide guidance to help you reach in your venue.

The ICO have prepared (click through to access):

But if you want to understand quickly what the barriers and solutions are to improving the cinema for the Deaf, read the quick read below:

Deaf or deaf?

With these recommendations, it is important to note we are focusing on Deaf audiences rather than the broader group of deafened and hard of hearing audiences. There is an important distinction between the physical condition of deafness and the Deaf community, a linguistic and cultural minority.

It’s important to understand that changing the situation requires commitment, opportunity and support to create a significant shift in the way that cinemas are perceived by Deaf people. Like all audience development initiatives, reaching a Deaf audience requires strategy and commitment over a long term period. Nonetheless, we feel that there are core problems and solutions.

Stronger connections with Deaf groups

Deaf patrons often feel cinema is not ‘for them’, or feel jaded by negative experiences, whether through poor customer service experiences or poor technical delivery. There is a strong network of Deaf groups in the UK. Making connections with these groups is a good way to understand the specific needs and interests of many of the Deaf people in your community. Groups such as the British Deaf Association can provide a route for you to connect with these groups to ensure that Deaf events are well attended and there is a way for the community to feel welcome and feedback any issues. 

Improved venue accessibility

A cinema is about more than films. Cinemas should consider how Deaf people will experience the rest of the cinema experience, which can often be alienating.  Staff should have a basic knowledge of BSL and so we’ve put together this resource of videos to help staff learn the key phrases so that Deaf patrons can buy tickets, drinks and snacks and feel included.  

Improved technical provision

One of the most cited negative experiences for Deaf audience members was attending screenings advertised as accessible but delivered without subtitles in the event. Changing this means that:

  • front of house should be aware of accessible screenings during their shift

  • Projectionists and technical managers have made adequate preparation of DCP materials and monitor the projection with care

  • Management should empower staff to ensure that Deaf audience members have a positive experience

    If you want to improve your technical delivery of Deaf screenings, please read The Visible Cinema Hand Guide, where GFT Cinema Technician Robbie Duncan has provided his opinion and experience on work on the Visible Cinema programme. He also discusses future technology and the impact this could have on what cinemas can offer Deaf audiences. 

Improved marketing and listings

Simply knowing when films are playing that are accessible is often an arduous experience for Deaf audience members.

Ideally, marketing should be:

  • Displayed in a dedicated area of a cinema’s website

  • Include a video summary of listings and titles in BSL

  • Released with a good amount of advance warning

Suitable screening times

Our survey of exhibitors showed that many felt frustrated with the size of the audience for accessible screenings, while many Deaf patrons felt frustrated that the screening slots offered to them (often during the day time) were not suitable for their working life. While we recognise that evening screenings are more lucrative periods for cinemas, most Deaf people work and so these times are not suitable.  Cinemas that are keen to build a dedicated Deaf audience should commit to subtitled screenings in an evening or weekend slot.

Improved selection of films

While larger budget studio films almost always have accessible materials, this is not the case for independent and world cinema titles, where economies of scale make this financially unsustainable. Cinemas were often unsure whether materials for films they were programming would be available for accessible cinema slots. It is very welcome that BFI-backed films include accessible materials, and we will pursue a policy that allows a diversity of material that reflects our broader view about cultural cinema programming. We also recommend that distributors take care to subtitle English language sections of foreign language titles to avoid excluding d/Deaf audience members and exhibitors are sensitive to this issue.