How the Movies Have Become Accessible

By Susanne Meyer

This weekend, my husband (who is blind) and I went to our local movie theater – the Raleigh Grande – to see Death on the Nile. We hadn’t been to the movies in two years because of Covid-19, and the occasion felt like a bit of a new beginning. For that reason, we did something we had never thought of before: we asked for an audio description headset for my husband.

To our surprise, our request did not cause any upheaval among the movie theater’s staff. They did not have to retreat to some back room and unearth some dusty, ancient, and uncharged headset. Instead, the staff member at the welcome desk immediately radioed another employee, who disappeared for mere seconds, and came back with an up-to-date, charged, ready-to-go assistive device.

Granted, on the first try they gave us a closed captioning device that could be inserted into a cup holder, which consisted of a small screen mounted on an adjustable arm. Captions were displayed in the user’s field of vision as the movie played. Very cool, but not much help to us.

We explained the difference between closed captioning and audio descriptions, and the different audiences who benefit from them to the staff member. Within another few minutes, we had an audio description headset in our hands. The headset was wireless, fuss-free, and automatically connected via Bluetooth to the movie theater’s audio track as soon as the movie started. It provided the movie’s soundtrack in one ear, and audio description in the other. Both had independent volume controls – which allowed my husband to turn down the audio descriptions during scenes that were rich in dialogue, and turn down the movie soundtrack in favor of louder audio descriptions during scenes that were primarily visual.

            We could not believe it was that easy, and we could not believe we had never even thought of asking for an audio description headset. Until Covid-19, we rarely watched TV. But while stuck at home, we began to watch TV shows with audio descriptions turned on, and this became our new standard – for TV and movies alike.

It was such a revelation to discover a movie theater that regards assistive technology as an integral part of their offering. The clencher to this wonderful outing was that our 15-year-old son was with us and witnessed the seamless integration of assistive technology into the movie experience. He is growing up in a world were accommodations are becoming more readily available, and where requesting them is normalized – at least at the Raleigh Grande.