Subtitles and captions make movies more inclusive

Griffin Sendek | Photo Editor


The use of captioning for television and movies is readily available on streaming services in home entertainment devices, yet has failed to be properly implemented on the big screen.

In the times of silent cinema, the theater could entertain the hearing and deaf alike. However, since the first development of sound in moving pictures in 1927, the medium took off running and never looked back.

In the transition away from silent films, the deaf and hard of hearing have been left in the dark, unable to enjoy the proper movie theater experience. It’s long overdue for this to change. It is necessary for American cinemas to undergo widespread adoption of open captions.

Subtitles and captions are very similar and often used synonymously, but there is a key difference between the two. Subtitles are only a transcription of dialogue, meant for language translation and designed for people without hearing disabilities. Captions, on the other hand, are designed for the hard of hearing and include dialogue as well as audio transcription of non-verbal sounds.

Open captions are projected on the screen with the film and are unable to be turned off, and closed captions, often abbreviated CC on TV menus and remotes, are available at the viewer’s discretion. Movie theaters are capable of providing closed captioning, albeit in less than ideal ways.

As part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Title III, it is required for all movie theaters to own and maintain equipment that provides closed captioning and audio description to its customers.

Despite the legal requirement for such devices, they are plagued with functional and mechanical errors. It is common for CC equipment to be out of sync with the movie, missing lines of dialogue, or have the batteries die part-way through.

Instead of working to ensure that all the assistive listening devices are fully functional for hard of hearing or deaf patrons, most theaters resort to apologizing by giving away free movie vouchers. These free vouchers are about as useful as if McDonald’s apologized to vegetarians for not having meat-free options by offering them free burgers.

What is the point in movie theaters offering accommodations for people with disabilities if said accommodations cannot be trusted to function 100% of the time?

Continuously giving away free movie tickets is not and never will be a proper solution. Theaters beginning to offer open captioned movie screenings, on the other hand, is a method that would eliminate many of the issues plaguing assistive listening devices.

Additionally, the implementation of open captions in cinemas cuts out the middleman allowing hard of hearing and deaf customers to view movies in just the same way as everyone else.

The most common argument against the use of captions is always the same — that captions are a huge distraction from the movie, that watching with them on pulls the focus completely to reading the words and not to the action on the screen.

The one-inch bar of mild-inconvenience for some is enough to make an entire world of difference for others. Your slight distaste for captions is in no way a valid excuse for denying an entire community of people from being able to take part in the movie theater experience.

The two-word “it’s distracting” argument, though thin as it may be, seems to be a massive roadblock for insertion of captioned screenings. Especially in a time when overall ticket sales are declining year to year, theaters are reluctant to make any sort of change that could potentially alienate audiences.

The fact of the matter is that hearing moviegoers can learn to deal with captions and still, but deaf moviegoers cannot learn to hear.

It is not even necessary for open captions to be implemented on the theater wide level, not every single movie screening needs to be an open captioned one. Offering captioned showtimes a few times a day would still be a big leap forward in making the simple pleasure of going out to the movies something that’s accessible to all.