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1 May 2007

See No Evil, Hear No Evil

When will Hollywood and the rest of the arts world get the message about catering for disabled peopl

By James Medhurst

When the Oscar-winning film ‘Million Dollar Baby’ was released, it was met by protests from disabled people across the world, as a result of its shocking and highly controversial ending.

Many of them boycotted the film and urged others to do the same. Others were aware that they might be criticised for protesting about something they had not seen and so they clenched their stomachs and went to watch it for themselves.

However, blind and deaf disability rights activists were denied a choice in the matter and were excluded from the debate altogether. This is because the film was released in cinemas without subtitles for the benefit of deaf viewers, or an audio description track to help blind cinema-goers.

Subtitles are familiar to anyone who remembers the pre-digital age, when they could be obtained on page 888 of Ceefax. Audio description is the equivalent for blind people, in which a narrator conveys visual information that is vital to develop the story. Providing both would have cost the producers of ‘Million Dollar Baby’ considerably less than the make-up budget for Hilary Swank, although they are not the only offenders.

A very large number of films, albeit usually somewhat smaller ones, continue to be released without such features and, even when they are included, cinemas are reluctant to put on accessible screenings, with a typical blockbuster available subtitled at just one London cinema each week. Theatres are even worse, if this is possible, though an honourable exception is the National Theatre, with most major productions having performances accessible to all.

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Critics of access for disabled people often observe the expense of making the necessary changes. In my view, this perspective misses the point but at least it has the advantage of being true in certain cases, such as making the London Underground open to wheelchair users.

However, no such objection can apply to the task of adding English subtitles to a film when the same is already being done in a variety of obscure languages for the benefit of overseas markets. The absurdity of disability discrimination is that protagonists often forget that we are consumers too and make decisions which actually cost them money in the long run.

That they are willing to cut off their noses to spite their faces is perplexing and raises the possibility that there is some non-rational motivation behind their actions. In the case of Clint Eastwood, the director of ‘Million Dollar Baby’, this conclusion is hard to resist. The man who campaigned to Congress to water down the Americans With Disabilities Act seems capable of making a bad commercial decision for political reasons.

For some activists, the inaccessibility of ‘Million Dollar Baby’ and the contents of its plot are both part of a sinister anti-disabled agenda. This may indeed be the case, but it cannot explain similar failures by the makers of other films.

Perhaps the answer is to be found in the attitude of the critic Mark Shenton who, having attended a performance at the Derby Playhouse, complained about the number of people with learning difficulties who were in the audience. He suggested that, just as sign language interpreted shows are advertised as such, the public should be ‘warned’ when any disabled people are likely to be present.

If his attitude is replicated throughout the population, then it would seem that accessibility is unpopular with audiences and therefore bad for business after all. On the other hand, it is more likely that Mark Shenton is believed to be typical by some producers but that they are wrong. If so, then it is time for consumers to vote with their feet and demonstrate this.

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