Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Making Outdoor Movies Accessible to Deaf and Hard of Hearing People

Recently, my homeowner's association announced it would be showing an outdoor movie, "Kung Fu Panda."   I emailed the activity director:

"Will the movie be shown with subtitles?  Subtitles would make the movie accessible to people with hearing loss, of which I'm one. Subtitles are also very useful for children still expanding their vocabularies, as well as for people who aren't native speakers of English.

"(The City of Rockville shows subtitles when they show movies downtown.)"

Here's the answer I received: 

"No I'm sorry. The vendor we are using is on a much smaller scale than the City of Rocvkille and we do not have the capablitiy to show subtitles via his equipment."

When I thought about this answer, I realized it didn't make sense to me.  I realized that both people might be confused about the difference between a DVD's closed captions and the English subtitles or SDH (Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing).  Many people use "captions" and "subtitles" interchangeably, but they're not at all the same.  

Here's an edited (improved) version of what I wrote back:

"You or he might be confused about the difference between closed captions and English subtitles.  While closed captions would require special technology in order to be shown, English subtitles on DVDs are normally very easy to turn on.

"If he is using a DVD player, he should have a DVD player that is capable of showing English 
subtitles.  (I would expect he is not using a film projector.)

"I have a DVD player myself that I got from Walmart for less than $40 which can show 
subtitles. Most DVD players have this capability.  This vendor probably does have a player that can show English subtitles (and if not, it would be cheap for him to upgrade to one; he could even borrow mine)."

The upshot was that the vendor did have a DVD player that could show subtitles, he used that player, the English subtitles were turned on, and I enjoyed being able to see the movie along with a lot of other people from my homeowner's association.  (It was fun to see the children interacting with their parents!)  I later heard from another audience member that he and his wife, who were both non-native speakers of English, really enjoyed seeing the movie with subtitles, and their young children also benefited from being able to read what was said.  I think probably quite a lot of people enjoyed the subtitles there.

My impression so far is that most new DVDs made by members of the MPAA (the Motion Picture Association of America) are probably going to have subtitles in English.  Years ago, the MPAA had voluntarily agreed to provide closed-captioning on all of their DVDs.  Perhaps because HDMI cables don't transmit closed caption data, the members of the MPAA generally seem to be providing English subtitles on Blu-Ray disks and on most other new DVDs, though they're still usually providing closed captions on the non-Blu-Ray DVDs.

The landscape about providing access to outdoor summertime movies has thus changed a great deal.  Now it's going to be much easier to provide access for deaf and hard of hearing people (and non-native speakers of English and young readers with limited vocabularies) when fairly new movies are being shown.

Older DVDs that have closed captions and no English subtitles will be a bit more difficult to make accessible, however, but it's still possible to show closed captions from DVDs via projectors:

  1. More and more projectors are being released on the market that do have the capability of decoding NTSC (analog) captions from external devices, including DVD players.  (It may be confusing to learn that a digital video disc (DVD) uses "analog" NTSC captions, but that is because the captions were originally designed to be decoded by analog (NTSC) TVs, and the caption format remains the same.)   In my opinion, all schools, libraries, government agencies and audiovisual engineers should consider making sure that new projectors they buy have the capability of decoding NTSC captions via the S-video and composite video inputs (and preferably, the component video input as well, though upconversion and progressive scanning would need to be turned off on the DVD player for the captions to be decoded via that input).  

  2. A makeshift solution for displaying captions from a DVD is to use a powerful enough laptop computer that is capable of displaying a DVD via a projector and which has a DVD software program installed that can decode captions from the DVD.  (The free Windows Media Player software has the capability of decoding captions from DVDs, as do many other DVD programs.) Not all laptop computers have the capability of displaying a DVD on an external monitor or projector, however, and at this time, I don't know what technical specifications a computer has to have in order to display a DVD on an external device.  (If you know the answer to this, please share!)

  3. Some DVD-recorders that have an ATSC tuner AND an NTSC tuner *may* be able to decode the captions from a DVD as well.  The Panasonic DVD recorders starting with the letters DMR appear to have this capability (*all* of the video output seems designed to pass through the internal caption decoder).  There are other DVD recorders with tuners that handle captions differently and which do not decode the captions from the DVDs (only the video input from television may be decoded, while the video output from DVDs is not necessarily designed to pass through the caption decoder).   If you know of other brands of DVD recorders that will decode captions from the DVDs, please provide the make and model number in a comment on this blog.

  4. Perhaps in the future, there will be some stand-alone DVD players developed that have the ability to decode captions.  At the present time, there's no requirement for them to do so. There's legislation proposed by the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technologies that would require such devices to have built-in decoding of captions.  In the past, the cost of decoder chips had been estimated as being less than $2; I imagine it's less than 50 cents now. If you'd like to support COAT's legislative efforts, check out their web site at

I hope this information provided here will help many more deaf and hard of hearing people enjoy outdoor movies this summer!    If you're having trouble getting access to an outdoor movie, you can ask the people showing the movie to go to this particular blog so that they can learn for themselves what they need to do.  

Enjoy the movies!



mediamovers said...

thanks for summarizing your experience.There needs to be more such collective efforts to ensure online video captioning/subtitling is implemented to ensure better reach.

Media Movers, Inc.

Anonymous said...

THis is a great story of advocacy persistence and how it resulted in more accessibility and usability for not just the person who stated they wanted the subtitles/captioning. It means we should never take "no" for an answer as very often there may be a way to get what's needed.
You are wonderful, Dana!