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What Ignoring the Disability Community Costs Hollywood

Calls for further diversity and inclusion in Hollywood aren't as loud when it comes to addressing the concerns of the disabled

October 15, 2019

disability-hollywood

In the design world, there’s a concept called the Curb Cut Effect.

Curb cuts are the ramps that lead from sidewalks into crosswalks. They’re standard at most intersections in America today but only because decades of protest by disabled activists seeking more mobility and equal access prompted their implementation after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990.

Today, of course, everyone uses them — parents with strollers, delivery people, bikers. They’re so universally used, in fact, that some people aren’t even aware that they were originally intended for wheelchairs.

When a change initially made for people with specific disadvantages ends up making a lot of people’s lives better, that’s the Curb Cut Effect. No smoking on airplanes? You can thank frustrated flight attendants for that. Football huddles? Invented by deaf quarterbacks at Gallaudet University worried about the opposing team reading their hand signals.

When we talk about how to better integrate the disabled and non-disabled film communities, an understanding of the Curb Cut Effect seems like a good starting place. Providing the disabled community with easier access to moviemaking and movie watching isn’t just a nice thing to do — it benefits everyone.  

A way in for audiences

“Access needs to be a component of the art, not an afterthought,” says Cheryl Green, a documentary filmmaker [Who Am I To Stop It] with acquired disabilities.

Green means that considering the needs of the disabled community is an investment that pays off by exposing films to an entire demographic that didn’t previously have a way of enjoying them. She’s saying that accessibility gives new stories and perspectives a platform. It destigmatizes and educates. It encourages the development of new technology with potentially far reaching uses. So why not think about it up front?

A 2019 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that 61 million Americans live with disabilities. Of course, that number encompasses a wide range of issues — mobility, cognition, hearing, vision, and so on — which means providing access requires a multifaceted approach.

“Access for one person means something totally different for someone else, even someone with the same disability,” says Emily Smith Beitiks, associate director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability and coordinator of Superfest, the world’s longest running disability film festival. “[At Superfest], we’re always doing the dance to make it worth it for everyone to come. It’s a messy dance but worth it.”

Reading lessons

The simplest way to ensure access to films for disabled audiences is to understand what closed captioning and audio description (AD) are and to prioritize them. Beitiks and Green implore filmmakers to include both technologies as line items in their budgets prior to production.

“You wouldn’t skimp when it comes to color correcting, so you need to ask yourself, why wouldn’t you pay for good captioning?” says Green, who also works as a captioner and audio describer.

It’s important to understand that captioning is different from subtitles, which assume the viewer can hear. Subtitles don’t alert you to that door creak just out of frame, for example. Other useful reminders: Open captioning is married to the picture, while closed captioning, which has been around since the early 1970s, can be turned on and off by the viewer.

Closed captioning is another great example of the Curb Cut Effect. Today, deaf viewers are only a fraction of caption users. Their ease of use has made them a staple for TVs in noisy bars or for viewers who can’t understand a Geordie accent on Love Island. A recent Oregon State University study found that across fifteen public and private universities nationwide, 98 percent of students who used captions found them helpful.

“You wouldn’t skimp when it comes to color correcting, so you need to ask yourself, why wouldn’t you pay for good captioning?”

But captioning can be good, and it can be bad. “There was a time when half my captioning client load was repairing rev.com captions,” says Green, referring to a site whose automated and budget captioning can include typos and can also miss a lot of the context and nuance that a human captioner can provide. (To be fair, similar services — Temi, Trint — are equally flawed.) In general, rates range from $1 per minute for low-quality captions to $20 per minute but average around $5 per minute.

Green recommends hiring a captioner the minute that picture locks and strongly encourages collaborating with directors, who can provide captioners with needed clarification. Captioners can, in turn, help directors see things from the perspective of caption users. One director, for example, who was showing films at an elementary school, asked Green if she could use “[expletive]” or “[sh*t]” instead of “shit” in a caption. Green refused. If the children who could hear were going to be exposed to the full expletive, why shouldn’t the non-hearing children? “It’s unethical if the captions don’t reflect what the full audience is hearing,” she said.

Talking action

Audio description is a bit of a misnomer; it’s actually the visuals that are being described, not the sound effects or tone of voice. The point is to orient blind and low-vision audience members to what’s happening on screen when characters aren’t speaking or there’s a lull in the soundtrack. See for yourself on Netflix — go to a show like Stranger Things, and in the area where you’d turn on closed captioning, select audio description. [“The pool light turns off, and a shadow looms over Barb . . .”]

Live audio description started in the 1920s, but AD as we know it now has only been around since the 1990s. At major movie theaters, the service is offered via headphones (although devices are often problematic — more on that in a minute). In 2015, Netflix began offering AD on a number of their titles after a fan-led campaign demanded access to Daredevil, a series based on a blind superhero. Other streaming services are slowly but surely following suit.

With the proliferation of audio-described movies in recent years, blind audiences are no longer just grateful the service exists; they're beginning to question the quality of the AD itself. On his podcast Reid My Mind Radio, blind podcaster Thomas Reid thoughtfully discusses this topic at length, using the example of the audio description accompanying Black Panther.

In an episode from last year, Reid, who is African-American and had partial vision until he was thirty-five, described his excitement leading up to the release of the film: “The vibe of this movie was unapologetically black. For those of us watching with audio description — well, the vibe wasn’t the same.”

This was in large part because the audio description for Black Panther was done by a white British man. Reid said it wasn’t that he felt white audio describers shouldn’t describe movies with predominately black casts, but since Black Panther was a film so deeply associated with a culture, “it makes sense to extend that to audio description.” He noted the AD quality itself was also lacking. Descriptions of sets were vague, and he only learned after conferring with sighted friends about the unique aspects of the film’s art direction, technology, and costume design.

In another episode, Reid cited Netflix’s Luke Cage series as an example of successful AD because, although it’s another predominately black production described by a white male, the descriptions were “culturally confident.” The account of a Biggie Smalls photo in the office of a character played by Mahershala Ali, for instance, stood out — Biggie’s expression, the crown he wears, how Ali’s character stands in front of it to give the appearance that he himself is wearing it.

When you’re making the choice to cut corners on captions or not include audio description, you’re sending the message that you don’t value disabled people as an audience.”

“When I forget whether or not I actually saw the film or whether I can just visualize it based on what I heard? If I can return to it with depth?” Reid asks rhetorically over the phone. “That’s description!”

Reid, Green, and Beitiks all agree that, ideally, the audio description should be created in collaboration with the film’s director. Reid is unsure how often directors or writers are even aware of audio-description technology in the first place: “I’m pretty certain that Ryan Coogler [who directed Black Panther] — if he had known about this, why would he not want to be included in the AD process?”

Audio description is an investment. It can cost anywhere from $15-30 per minute of footage, but when its inclusion is done well, it practically ensures a viewership. (Remember those 61 million Americans with disabilities?) There’s even evidence that audio description is starting to benefit from the Curb Cut Effect. A growing audience of AD users who are not visually impaired — truck drivers, runners — are beginning to use the technology.

“It’s also a justice issue,” explains Green. “I get it — it’s expensive, but you’re restricting access to information. When you’re making the choice to cut corners on captions or not include audio description, you’re sending the message that you don’t value disabled people as an audience.”

Obstacle courses

In 2016, the Justice Department amended the ADA to ensure that American theaters adhere to three requirements:

  1. To have and maintain the equipment necessary to provide closed captioning and audio description at a movie patron’s seat whenever showing a digital movie produced, distributed, or otherwise made available with these features;
  2. To provide notice to the public about the availability of these features; and
  3. To ensure that theater staff is available to assist patrons with the equipment before, during, and after the showing of a movie with these features.

The amendment is definitely a sign of progress, but its real-world implementation is another story.

According to Reid: “When you purchase a movie ticket, you say, ‘I’d like the device for the visually impaired.’ What you end up getting is the enhanced hearing device for the hearing impaired, which just makes things louder. The other problem is that you might have the right device, but they don’t turn it on on their end — or it’s out of batteries — and my wife has to miss the beginning of the movie getting me another headset. I can’t tell you how many comp tickets we’ve gotten!”

“The need for ongoing staff training is huge,” says Stanley Yarnell, a retired San Francisco physician who lost his eyesight at fifty. “I have become very good at formulating quick, yes-or-no questions to ask my [sighted] partner during movies.”

Making films accessible is a work in progress, but there have been recent strides forward. Made by a startup of the same name, Actiview is an app hoping to bring captioning, AD, and even sign language interpretation to viewer’s phones so they don’t have to rely on theater equipment. Additionally, Comcast recently introduced Eye Gaze, an interface that lets viewers control their televisions with their eyes, a development that has implications for people who have lost their fine motor skills. Reid points out that Eye Gaze is also good “for gamers” looking for a more immersive experience because the app allows them to multitask and control multiple actions simultaneously.

But startups need funds and visibility to widen their libraries, and innovative services need to more clearly promote their offerings to widen their reach. Yarnell notes that information pertaining to accessibility is often buried deep on company websites.

Andre Gray, a Portland, Oregon-based deaf filmmaker, became frustrated with the fact that deaf audiences often need to hunt around multiple websites to find ASL-based streaming video content. [For some hearing impaired viewers, English is their second language after one of the major forms of sign language (ASL, SEE, or PSL).] As a result, Gray started the Beyond Tone Project, which is striving to be a one-stop hub for all sign-language-based video content.

Hire priorities

The technical aspects of audience accessibility are just one part of the puzzle; the creative aspects are another. “Raising funds for stories about disabilities is challenging,” says Isaac Zablocki, co-founder of the ReelAbilities Film Festival. “Most funders don’t want to touch them unless there’s Oscar potential.” He points out that, while 26 percent of Americans live with a disability, their on-screen (speaking) representation in Hollywood hovers around 2.5 percent.

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Zablocki believes the only authentic way to increase this number is to hire more disabled people across the board — from writers and directors to hair and makeup. You heard the same idea echoed at a 2018 International Documentary Association (IDA) panel called “The Ramp Less Traveled” where disabled sound editor, activist, and filmmaker James LeBrecht [Crip Camp] pushed for the hiring of disabled interns.

“Look,” he said from the stage, “it’s not a ‘Make-A-Wish’ to give somebody a job on your film. These are critical voices with stories that are never going to be told, that contribute to society and to how people perceive people with disabilities.”

LeBrecht emphasized that providing access to internships requires revising the film world’s tired mindset (shared by the wider world) that interns need to prove their value by working twenty hours a day for free. “Endurance does not equal commitment or capability,” he said.

Gray is a perfect example of commitment and capability. He’s currently taking steps to help the Portland deaf community produce their own movies in ASL. “The community here doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to learn about the high-tech equipment — lighting, etc. — so we’re figuring it out as we go,” he said.

Sometimes thinking about access for disabled filmmakers is literal, as in they just need a damn way into the building. At the IDA panel, LeBrecht, who uses a wheelchair, cited two physical examples that had the potential to hinder his career: filmmaker retreats in rural settings and networking parties held in inaccessible locations at festivals like Sundance. If you’re shut out of important relationship-building events, “how else do you build your career as a filmmaker?” he asks.

Story time

Hollywood’s failure to provide a platform to disabled storytellers is most obviously reflected in the number of films that lazily rehash the same old tropes, which Beitiks and Zablocki both regularly encounter in festival submissions. “Inspiration porn,” a term coined by comedian and disabled activist Stella Young, is a common one. “It’s when the disabled person has to do all these things — climb a mountain or play football — to prove their worth,” says Beitiks. “Why? Are they objectifying their experience just for how it makes non-disabled people feel?”

“No pity stories, please,” says Zablocki, referencing what Beitiks calls “tragedy films.” (Think Million Dollar Baby.)

“Even if there’s a happy ending,” Beitiks says, “the overall framing is they made lemonade out of lemons” — an outdated viewpoint that ignores the diversity of disabled people’s experiences. Other themes she finds cringe-worthy are horror films using an external disability to symbolize inner derangement (Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street) or when the disabled are seen as “magical” (The Green Mile).

Then there’s something Beitiks calls “crip face” or “cripping up.” “There’s a whole conversation about why disabled actors aren’t the ones cast in disabled roles,” she says. “I mean, they can CG-out Lt. Dan’s legs or turn [John Rhys-Davies] into a dwarf, but who says it can’t go the other way?”

Subvert the dominant paradigm

During “The Ramp Less Traveled” panel, LeBrecht posed a question: “How do we move this [access] from something that people feel like they have to do to something that they really want to do?”

“Even if there’s a happy ending, the overall framing is they made lemonade out of lemons.”

 

Sure, the number of details to consider, when evaluated piece-by-piece, may overwhelm people used to the current paradigm. But it’s really just a matter of shifting perspective: When the needs of as many people as possible are considered up front, the ultimate number of beneficiaries becomes exponential, as the Curb Cut Effect proves. It also helps to face the fact that, in general, most people, over the course of their lives, will experience some form of disability, whether it’s permanent or temporary.

“Many people associate the use of closed captions and transcripts only with disability accommodation and that can mean they are not made widely available," said Katie Linder, director of the OSU study that found 98 percent of college students who use captions find them helpful. (Notably, of all respondents, only 19 percent cited having hearing issues while 37 percent reported vision issues.) In other words, when a technology has a “disabled” label on it, non-disabled people prefer not to be associated with it, and it becomes ghettoized, hard to access.

For some reason, a baked-in collective distrust tends to rear its ugly head when one set of people receive support, as though that support can only be extended if it’s taken away from another group. But time and time again, the opposite has proven true: Inclusivity benefits everyone.

Until the technologies and considerations required to fully integrate the disabled community into the wider film landscape are seen as “normal,” they’ll continue to be marginalized. And the only way to normalize them is to keep promoting these practices and forethought. Keeping the Curb Cut Effect in mind may be one way to stay motivated.

Kerry McLaughlin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. In the past, she wrote and edited at various magazines and websites, including Allure, XLR8R, and Vice. In recent years, she’s worked in narrative and documentary film as an editor, script supervisor, and researcher. Besides that, she teaches a media literacy workshop to kids, volunteers with the homeless and developmentally disabled communities, hikes long distances, and climbs tall mountains.
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