Joe Clark: Media access

Updated 2005.09.15

Accessibility of Canadian cinema

This submission to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage is made by Joe Clark, Toronto, and is dated 2005.09.15.

Location of this submission

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  1. Canadian movies in theatres are inaccessible to blind or deaf viewers. The movies don’t have captioning or audio description.
  2. Many Canadian movies on home video are inaccessible to deaf viewers, and nearly all are inaccessible to the blind. French-language viewers are worse off than English-language.
  3. There are technical methods to remedy the inaccessibility. But technical methods aren’t the problem; expertise is. When it comes to the actual practice of captioning and audio description, by and large Canadians stink.
  4. We need an improvement to the technical infrastructure, but we also need standards and training to bring Canadian captioning and audio description to a basic level of competence. I have a project in the works to do just that; it requires support.


I am a journalist, author, and accessibility consultant in Toronto. I’ve had nearly 400 articles published in magazines and newspapers. I wrote the book Building Accessible Websites (New Riders, 2002), a now-standard textbook about developing Web sites that people with disabilities can use.

I’ve been following captioning and other forms of accessible media since I was a teenager in New Brunswick in the ’70s. The Atlantic Monthly called me “the king of closed captions.” At time of writing, I am an Invited Expert with the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group.

I do consulting work for clients, mostly concerning Web accessibility and captioning. I lecture on Web accessibility in far-flung locales like Australia, England, and Ottawa. I have a B.A. in linguistics and a diploma in engineering, giving me a combined technical/humanities education. I write prolifically about accessibility issues.

I provided evidence to the Committee on the topic of accessibility of Canadian broadcasting in 2002.

I’ve been interested in cinema accessibility since I wrote an article on the topic for Technology Review in 1994. To my knowledge, nobody at all has seen more closed-captioned movies (as explained below) than I have.

If you’re concerned about conflict of interest:

Accessibility facts

The Committee has already heard of the cronyism and entrenched mediocrity of the Canadian film business. What you heard put a nice gloss on a predicament that’s much worse than anyone had the guts to tell you. The entire Canadian film infrastructure is a disgrace. If nobody told you that yet, I’m telling you now.

But it gets worse. We put all this money into Canadian film – actually, not enough money, but where you stand on that sets you apart as a proponent or opponent of Canadian culture – and end up with movies that not everyone can even watch. I don’t mean that the movies are unwatchably bad (one or two per year are not); I mean that a blind person or a deaf person cannot go to the handful of movie houses that run Canadian films for a week or two at a time, sit down, and enjoy the picture. Why? Because none of the movies have captions for deaf people or audio descriptions for blind people. It just doesn’t happen.


Let’s understand a bit more about captioning for deaf people and audio description for blind people.

Techniques and technologies

There are only two techniques we can use to provide access features like captions or descriptions – closed or open.

When it comes to movies exhibited in theatres, we have to adapt the terminology a little.

Equal access

A real problem is that theatre owners, based on no documented research or evidence at all, almost completely refuse to run open-captioned films in any form. They scarcely have ever appeared at any time in Canadian theatres, and only a few movie houses in the U.S., Australia, and the U.K. run open captioning at all. (Proponents will tell you the numbers add up to several hundred theatres, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of theatres available in those countries.)

The result? Only some screenings of a movie are shown with open captions. Your choices, rather as with the Model T Ford’s, are any captioning you want as long as it’s Monday at 5:30 PM, Wednesday at 11:00 AM, or Thursday at 9:30 PM. Open captioning can theoretically provide equal access but doesn’t.

Every technology other than burned-in open captions has a related technology for closed audio description. Rear Window’s related system has a name, DVS Theatrical; it is functionally identical to the offerings from DTS and Dolby. (In fact, DTS makes some of the hardware for its own system and for Rear Window.)

A blind viewer can attend any screening using any of those technologies. They have equal access to the small number of films that are described.

Nonetheless, that doesn’t change the fact that the DTS and Dolby systems provide nothing but open captioning. The only technology that provides equivalent access to deaf and blind moviegoers is Rear Window.


As suggested above, if you need captioning or description, you have to run a gauntlet:

It’s easy too make the case that movie distributors and movie exhibitors are engaging in illegal discrimination against deaf or blind people. Only some movies are captioned, fewer are described; only some theatres have accessibility equipment; open captioning is effectively nonexistent.

Interestingly, no Rear Window screens are located in Quebec. Famous Players is afraid of a complaint from the language police; the LED display is, you see, a sign, and it only ever shows English words. This is a kind of nonsense that needs to be stopped.

I find it notable that the Americans and the British have done more with cinema accessibility than we have. All the movies that have run at Famous Players cinemas with captioning and/or description have been American or British. Most U.K. captioned and/or described films are American, though they do caption and/or describe a few British films. With only two known exceptions in living memory, Canada does not caption or describe its feature films at all.

Subtitling doesn’t help

If the Committee somehow imagines that subtitled films fill a gap here, please accept this as a reality check.

Subtitled films are usually foreign-language pictures from outside Canada. Some are Quebec films subtitled in English. (In exceedingly rare cases, English-language Canadian films may be subtitled in French. English-language films in Quebec, from all sources, tend to be dubbed, not subtitled.) It’s virtually impossible to actually watch a Quebec subtitled movie in Canada, because theatre exhibitors don’t bother showing them.

So you can forget about subtitling as an accessibility method right there.

But it gets worse: Subtitling simply does not provide enough information for a deaf viewer. Many utterances are untranslated; speakers are not indicated at all; there is no indication of non-speech information; and the invariant bottom-centred position of the subtitles borders on useless for a deaf viewer. And those are only some of the differences between captioning and subtitling.

Another important distinction comes into play for hard-of-hearing viewers for whom captioning supports their residual hearing. They have to listen to dialogue in a foreign language, which can be confusing when combined with subtitles in one’s native language.

Subtitles, moreover, do not help the blind at all.

Hence, don’t think for a second that subtitling has any role to play in accessibility for people with disabilities. Additionally, if anyone ever tells you that a subtitled film can’t be captioned, tell them they’re wrong, since it already happens on TV and home video.


In the olden days, Telefilm used to require that its funded productions be captioned. Apparently there is no such requirement anymore. (I can’t tell for sure. Whenever I ask, either I’m ignored or I am accused – repeatedly, even after specific denials – of making some kind of commercial pitch. Telefilm hires the worst bureaucrats in the country.) The requirement only ever applied to home video and was never enforced; I encountered many productions without captions. It was and is the norm in French to release a movie without captions.

There was never a requirement for audio description. Nor did the captioning requirement apply to first-run movies. (It could have, since open captioning has existed for decades.)

To my knowledge, no other funding body (besides some of the various FACTs, like VideoFACT) requires captioning, and that case only came about because of my own lobbying. No funding bodies require description.


So: It’s not looking good for the deaf or blind moviegoer. As a result of illegal discrimination and other factors, they have very few options. Is there anything else standing in their way?

Yes – standards. There simply aren’t any in cinema accessibility. We can approach this from two directions.


There are no standards for the way captioning and description are to be done. Every captioner and describer does things differently, to the point where the same picture may be open- and closed-captioned for first-run movie houses four different times (burned-in captions, Rear Window, DTS, and Dolby) and captioned for home video at least three more times (NTSC DVD, PAL DVD, and numerous VHS formats), resulting in more than seven different caption streams. It’s a wasted duplication of effort, but more importantly, all those captions will look, act, and read differently. You the captioning viewer have to relearn how to watch captioning every single time.

They can’t even standardize the fonts, which is at least more understandable since there simply are no custom-made, well-tested fonts for captions or subtitles.

Things are not significantly different with audio description. Description practice has converged more thoroughly than captioning practice has. (In fact, captioning practice has diverged, not converged.) Many description providers, with the notable exception of AudioVision Canada, produce grossly similar description tracks. Nonetheless, there are differences, most notably when it comes to reading out onscreen type (again, AudioVision Canada fails where no one else does) and in choice of narrators. To a lesser extent than captioning viewers, description viewers must relearn how to watch a movie each time. Nonetheless, there are notable disparities between different describers’ styles.


There are umpteen different captioning file formats, including one or two that claim to be de facto or actual standards. Captions made for one system (e.g., Rear Window) don’t work in another system, and they sure don’t work for home video, either. (The same is true of subtitles.) Burned-in captions or subtitles do not themselves have an underlying file format, which means the titles cannot be reused.

The problem is similar, though again less serious, with description. There is no standardized file format for audio-description scripts or recordings. (If you think we can just get by with a Microsoft Word document, think again: We need significant additions for timecode and for prompts that are found in the original soundtrack or visuals. In any event, Word is itself nonstandard.)

Standardization is a longer-term problem. We can’t keep putting out multiple caption and description formats. We may still have multiple systems, but they need to be able to read and write single formats.

More importantly, we can’t very well have each and every captioner or describer doing things differently. (Each will tend to claim its way is best and take umbrage when their mistakes are pointed out. That’s what happens without standardization: It becomes a question of ego.)

Enter the Open & Closed Project

Canada needs to become a global leader in accessibility standardization. My proposed nonprofit Open & Closed Project, which has attracted support from several countries, will actually write standards for captioning, audio description, subtitling, and dubbing, doing so on the basis of research and evidence. We’ll then test the standards to make sure they work, and train and certify practitioners. At that point there won’t be as many kinds of captioning as there are captioners, for example; there will simply be captioning. Within each medium of presentation it will all look and act the same, and it will all be carried out by practitioners whose competence is proven. We’ll also develop standard file formats and better fonts.

The costs involved are not great, but so far nobody’s biting. People are happier to throw good money after bad on nonstandard captioning and description rather than investing a bit up front to solve the problem.

My submission includes PDF attachments (in tagged accessible format) that further document the Open & Closed Project, which is the only independent, nonprofit research project that can tackle the problem of accessibility standardization.

The role of film festivals

Canadian film festivals are well-positioned to screen Canadian films with captions, descriptions, or both, whether open or closed. They already run huge numbers of films, sometimes with multiple screenings and mostly for minority tastes. The fact that they’ve never bothered, and that the Toronto International Film Festival has largely resisted my efforts over the last three years to make that happen, speaks volumes. They can do better. In particular, the Toronto festival’s new building needs to be supremely accessible, complete with one or more accessible screening rooms.


  1. Recognize that blind and deaf people have a right to enjoy and understand Canadian movies. To make that recognition real requires captioning and description.
  2. Tie public funding to accessibility. If you get funding for your project, you must caption and describe it. Obviously the funding you get should be increased to cover those costs, though this may not stop producers from cheaping out and using the worst captioners and describers (i.e., the least expensive ones).
  3. Tie public funding to reusability. Your captions and descriptions must follow the production through its entire chain, from first-run cinema to home video and DVD to television. Of course format changes may be required, but I never want to see an uncaptioned home video of a movie I knew was captioned in the theatre, to use an example.
  4. Get more equipment into theatres. Something’s fishy when only a few theatres from a single movie chain have captioning and description equipment. (And that chain is in the process of being swallowed by another chain.) It has to become more widely available, with accessible and easy-to-find listings of captioned and/or described movies. (That means no eight-point type in sporadic and unpredictable newspaper ads. I mean accessible and I mean easy-to-find.)
  5. Require captioning and description even of subtitled productions. In some cases, captioning can replace the subtitles altogether; in others, captions add to them.
  6. Ban certain practices known to be harmful, like the use of scrollup captioning for fictional movies on TV, DVD, and home video.
  7. Press the Government of Quebec to explicitly exempt caption and subtitle displays from the language requirements of any sign laws.
  8. Do not permit lobby groups, like the Canadian Association of the Deaf or the Canadian National Institute of the Blind, to hijack the process. If consultation is required, which I dispute, put neutral but knowledgeable observers in charge. CAD and CNIB in particular have a desire to simply run every single project in Canada related to deafness or blindness, respectively. (See the demands CAD embedded in a government-funded report on captioning for high-definition television.) Moreover, deaf lobbyists have a habit of pressing for captioning only and not description.
  9. Finally, fund my standardization project. I’m no more interested in public funding than in private funding (in fact, I’d somewhat prefer the latter), but we’ve got to take the actual practice and the interoperability of captioning and description seriously. It’s never been taken seriously before. My project can solve the problem.

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