Movies and Ableism: Are You “Normal” Enough To Watch Movies?

“I love TV serials, especially the more emotional ones, featuring relationships between family members.”

“I love cricket. My son and I enjoy all India matches, especially the IPL season”

Note: These quotes were translated from Telugu and modified by the author for clarity and conciseness.

 

These are some of the conversations that graced our lunchrooms, at Vision Aid, where I served as an AIF Clinton Fellow this year, on most afternoons. The visually impaired scholars would oscillate between talking about the latest Telugu movies and cricket matches that they had watched and small tidbits of gossip from their lives. To them, movies are an integral part of how they lived their lives and learned the unspoken yet inherently accepted rules of the societies they inhabited.

However, ask a sighted person to describe the movie-watching experience and they will probably do so in explicitly visual language. Visual medium. Pictures. Dances. Shots. Most of the language used when talking about movies is grounded in the assumption of sight. And by extension, the movie-going experience becomes a hegemonic space built by and for the sighted. While I am sure that most aware and thoughtful consumers of the cinematic experience will not openly gawk if a blind person walked into a theatre, I would still bet that somewhere, in the recesses of their mind, they would question why that blind person was there. Perhaps, niggling at them would be the sentiment that that blind person does not belong in the movie theatre. 

This article chooses to focus on movies, rather than banks or transport, to talk about our current exclusionary definition of normal and access in an attempt to breakdown some of the ingrained assumptions around what experiences are deemed to be important enough to be made accessible to the visually impaired. And in doing so, hopefully, dig a little deeper about how this perpetuates a normal that actively and explicitly excludes the disabled community.

It would not necessarily be hyperbole to say that movies and stories are interwoven into the fabric of India and bleed into who we are as Indians. It is both, a huge medium of information and cultural dissemination and a source of daily entertainment for millions of Indians. It not only informs people about the latest norms and cues, but also provides commentary on and ways to understand various sociopolitical and economic events. In some cases, it also functions as a conversation starter and networking tool. Given this omnipotence, why is it, then, that such an experience is almost entirely reserved for the non-disabled community? The answers can range from ‘I did not think about this’, ‘We should focus on other more important sectors like banking and transport’, or ‘How can they watch a movie?! They can’t see’. In my own experience as an AIF Clinton Fellow, I have heard the occasional ‘No, no, this is not for them. They probably cannot and will not enjoy it’ as a justification for their complacency. I do not intend to call out anyone. Rather, I want to try and reflect upon my positionality and role as a sighted person when I watch a movie or walk into a movie theatre, a hostile and ableist space for the community that I directly worked with. 

‘No, no, this is not for them. They probably cannot and will not enjoy it’. If I ever heard that rhetoric growing up, I probably walked right past it. I hope those who read this article will not, should they ever do come across something similar. However, this time, when I heard this line being used as a reply to diminish the urgency of a petition to force movie theatres to comply with specific accessibility regulations*, I could not help but seethe in indignation. I had spent months talking and laughing and overanalyzing movie plots with my students to know that this was the furthest thing from the truth. The visually impaired students at Vision Aid not only enjoyed movies but also engaged with the plot and characters like any sighted person would. I wondered how disconnected the said person in this scenario was from the visually impaired community to make these inferences. Did they interact with members from the community that explicitly told them that they do not enjoy movies? Or was the implication that the visually impaired did not enjoy watching movies in a movie theatre, given how unaccommodating and uncomfortable the experience can be for them? I wish I knew. But I do believe that regardless, sweeping generalizations do great harm.

I want to spend a little bit of energy exploring the phrase ‘not for them’. Who is this ‘them’ and why don’t they belong to an experience that is so fundamental to most of our lived experiences? I will make some assumptions to make my point. For this, I apologize. I will, however, base these assumptions on my own work experiences. I assume that ‘them’ refers to the visually impaired and that the phrase meant to imply that the movie-watching experience was not for this community. Taking that a step further, I want to unpack who the ‘for them’ would then mean. Logically, this would probably be the sighted or non-disabled community. Now, layer on this the assumption that watching movies is a normal and mundane activity. Assuming the binaries of ‘for them’ and ‘not them’, if the visually impaired do not belong to this normal, one of the key groups that do belong and for whom this experience is constructed would be the sighted or non-disabled community. 

Now that we have sort of established how the visually impaired might not be considered, advertently or innocuously, a part of the ‘normal’ within the context of the movie-watching experience, let me ask you this question. What if it is not that the visually impaired do not belong to some idea of normal, but rather are subjected to inaccessible spaces that actively disable them? Simply put, what if we are creating a normal that does not, by definition, allow them to be a part of it? Imagine a world in which the normal meant equipping movies with audio descriptions and subtitles. Through this default, the visually impaired would be able to freely enjoy and engage with movies along with their sighted counterparts. So maybe we need to start seriously questioning this idea of ‘normal’ and who is allowed to be a part of this ‘normal’. To me, normal is a malleable term that is actively being created and changed. So underpinning it should be universal design and inclusion, not privilege. 

Before I proceed, I want to acknowledge that there is a difference between watching movies and the movie-watching experience. I would argue that the former, you can do several places and platforms — laptop, smartphone, or TVs — whereas, for the latter, you would specifically go to a movie theatre. 

Movies are, at their core, audio-visual stories. However, I challenge the assumption that this medium needs to be grounded in the assumption of sight. Even without sight, visually impaired communities possess attributes required to enjoy and engage with cinema, some of which include the ability to perceive, understand, empathize, visualize, and imagine. However, a look at the accessibility of movies, whether it be in the form of audio descriptions or subtitles, will indicate the complete sidelining of specific communities as potential consumers of it. One of the biggest ways in which technology has enabled visually impaired communities to engage with movies is through audio descriptions. This is an additional track that plays alongside the movie narrating the happenings that are critical to understanding the movie. For example, audio descriptions would include verbal descriptions of scenes without dialogues, explicitly detailing expressions, body language, costume, background, and so on.

On the other hand, the movie-watching experience includes a slew of decisions and experiences, beginning with deciding what movie theatre to go to, being able to get to the theatre and access the building, and finding yourself seated in the right theatre watching a movie that hopefully has an audio description track**. This complex web of decisions, experiences, and spaces can intersect to create marginalizing experiences for the visually impaired. This in turn kickstarts a sinister cycle in which their absence from this space leads to a lack of representation which is perceived by as a choice/given and is normalized over time. Marginalization from the experience itself is normalized. This space then eventually becomes the purview of the sighted community.

Further, another aspect of ‘No, no, this is not for them. They probably cannot and will not enjoy it.’  that is troubling is this idea of what experiences are deemed to be worthy enough, or important, that they are made accessible? Who decides what experiences are more important than the other? Inherent to the answer to this question is a value judgment that, in this case, non-disabled people, typically those making policies and standards, place on the lived experiences of the disabled communities. There is no denying that prioritizing meeting accessibility standards in essential services such as transport, food, banking, etc. is vital. However, what if instead of looking at meeting these standards as an accessibility checklist, we looked at it as a cross-sectoral issue that should underpin every new product, design, and experience. Perhaps this is a utopian dream, but inclusive realities should be the norm, not a checklist relegated to the government to oversee and get to the end of. Bringing it back to the theme of the article, conversations with some of my students, young adults, would reveal that movies form an integral part of their education, growth, and engagement with society. That a sighted person should trivialize the movie watching experience as ‘not important enough’ underscores a lack of understanding, meaningful engagement, and inclusion of the very communities that they seem to advocate for.

I do want to conclude on a slightly positive note. Understanding and wanting to tap into this unexplored market, nonprofits like Saksham have taken up the task of providing audio descriptions for movies. The 47th International Film Festival of India even had an entire section devoted to audio-described movies. Further, there also exist apps like XL Cinema that provide audio descriptions tracks for a specific set of movies, across various Indian languages, that the viewer can privately access on their smartphones.

Alas, with hope comes nuance! Although technology has greatly enabled organizations, developers, and the government to take steps towards meaningfully including disabled communities in the definition of a ‘normal’ movie watcher, barriers do exist. Apps like XL Cinema require the viewer to own a smartphone and be connected to quality internet. Given that a majority of India’s visually impaired live in rural areas and are unemployed, the benefits of such technologies are either lost entirely or only accrue to the upper echelons within the disabled communities. [1] Secondly, given the linguistic diversity and the concentration of the visually impaired in rural areas, any successful movement towards an inclusive movie watching experience will have to involve regional cinema and engaging with the relevant stakeholders. Finally, a mindset shift in movie production and design, of basing it on the principles of universal design from the get-go, rather than as the last addition, is much needed to make such audio descriptions the norm and logistically efficient. 

The next time when I, as a sighted person, watch a movie, I hope to remember that there is still a long road to walk until I can truly share this incredible experience universally.

 


Notes:

*Outlined by the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2014

** To my knowledge, none of the big multiplexes in metro cities have had regular screenings of movies with audio descriptions. Further, most movies, especially regional movies, do not come with audio descriptions.

[1] Visual Impairment. http://www.rehabcouncil.nic.in/writereaddata/vi.pdf

Pallavi is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Vision Aid in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. For her Fellowship project, she is piloting a scholarship program to provide residential, intensive training to visually impaired students from underprivileged segments of India to reach their full potential. Pallavi’s passion for an inclusive and innovative education policy motivated her most recent project in Hyderabad, funded by the Women and Gender Leadership Fund. She documented how women without access to formal education, particularly those from marginalized communities, have used informal networks and vocational training centers to positively transform their socioeconomic outcomes. Pallavi's first experience in the development sector was as a volunteer teacher for Make a Difference, an organization that works towards empowering vulnerable children in Hyderabad. During college, Pallavi worked as a Fellow at the Mgrublian Center of Human Rights, studying the role of educational institutions and networks, policies, and pedagogies in combating radicalization and promoting socioeconomic independence among high-school students in Kashmir. Engaging with the community by supporting organizations and founding her own service initiatives such as the India Education Project, has been of immense personal and academic importance to her. On campus, she worked as an economic journalist with the Lowe Institute of Political Economy to learn the art of compelling, engaging, and credible data-driven storytelling and writing. Realizing the importance of women role-models, she worked as a part of the founding team of Claremont Women in Business, providing a community network and resources to women on campus for professional pursuits. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Pallavi is eager to gain more experience in the development sector, learn about the complexities, opportunities, and challenges in this space, meet incredible people, and take a step forward in enabling positive change.

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