TIFF needs to pressure producers to make their movies accessible, advocates say

TIFF organizers say they strive to make the festival lineup more accessible year-after-year but they say it's the producers and the studios — not the festival itself — who decide whether they'll provide deaf and/or blind viewers with closed captioning and descriptive audio. That's not good enough for some critics, who say the festival should push filmmakers for more accessibility.

Only 1 film in the this year's festival lineup offers closed captioning services

Film critic Michael McNeely, who is deaf and partially blind, gave up going to the film festival this year because of the barriers he faces. (Mark Bochsler/CBC News)

TIFF organizers say they strive to make the festival lineup more accessible year-after-year but they say it's the producers and the studios — not the festival itself — who decide whether they'll provide deaf and/or blind viewers with closed captioning and descriptive audio.

That's not good enough for some critics, who say the festival doesn't do enough to cater to people with disabilities and it should push the people who make the movies to provide more accessibility. 

CBC Toronto sat down with film critic Michael McNeely, who happens to be hearing impaired and visually impaired due to a rare genetic disorder. After making several of his complaints about the festival's accessibility last year, he says he has given up on TIFF 2017. 

"I have decided not to attend this year because I don't really feel welcome," McNeely said.

"There is only one film that is accessible at this time," he said, referring to Brad's Status, which is the only movie in the festival lineup to be available in closed captioning and descriptive sound.

There were three accessible films last year. 

McNeely says he used to make the best out of TIFF by purchasing tickets for foreign films, simply because they would at least have subtitles.

However, he says, subtitles lack the description of scenes and sounds a visually and/or hearing impaired moviegoer, let alone a movie reviewer like McNeely, requires to take in a film.
The TIFF website has an accessibility page with information on accessing theatres, how to book assisted listening devices and which movies have closed captioning. This year there's just one. (Mark Bochsler/CBC News)

In an emailed statement to CBC Toronto, a TIFF spokesperson wrote: "We are very proud of the many resources we currently offer such as assisted listening devices, wheelchair accessible theatres, gender neutral washrooms, and closed captioned and descriptive films in theatres where possible." 

The trouble is, it's seldom possible.

"The decision to close-caption a film remains at the discretion of the film's studio and/or production team," the statement reads.

"We also welcome more than 139 foreign language films that will all be subtitled for viewing and 15 films that are silent with no dialogue."

But the statement goes on to acknowledge that these examples are not a substitute for closed captioning. 

For McNeely, trying to make it as a movie critic is difficult when he can't immerse himself in more mainstream films. 

"As a film critic our website is trying to be as competitive as possible, so ultimately they want the mainstream film to be reviewed ...," he said.

TIFF feeling pressure to pressure filmmakers

TIFF has an accessibility stakeholder group responsible for removing any physical and audio/visual barriers people may face at the festival. 

The festival's website now has an accessibility page explaining how each screening venue is accessible by way of things such as ramps, automatic doors and accessible washrooms. 
Liviya Mendelsohn of the ReelAbilities Film Festival says TIFF should do more to make closed captioning mandatory for more movies. (Mark Bochsler/CBC News)

There's also a phone number patrons can call to reserve accessible seating ahead of a screening. 

And for industry people, with two days notice, they can arrange an American Sign Language interpreter to assist them at events like question-and-answer sessions and galas. 

"We see somewhat more access than last year," said Liviya Mendelsohn, the art director of the ReelAbilities film festival in Toronto, which showcases "disability and Deaf cultures through film, and the art and talent of artists with disabilities and Deaf artists," according to its website. 

In 2016, Mendelsohn's organization sent their accessibility guideline to TIFF organizers about how to throw an accessible film festival.

But Mendelsohn says she unfortunately isn't surprised that the festival is offering only one film with closed captioning. 

"Deadlines are tight for a film festival, especially one as large as TIFF. Sometimes they're getting those films completed and final cuts right under the wire," she said. 

"But I think producers can do a lot to create captioning and audio description while they're creating a film, rather than going back when it's finished and doing it retroactively."

One change she'd like to see by next year is some more advocacy from TIFF when it comes to getting filmmakers to make their work accessible to people with disabilities. 

"It is a huge ship to turn. But they have the capacity to turn it."

As of this year, the festival has enlisted an American Sign Language audit to review how the festival's services can be improved. 


Ali Chiasson

Reporter, CBC Toronto

From teleprompter to Associate Producer, Ali Chiasson worked many desks at CBC News Network before stepping in front of the cameras at CBC Toronto. Ali covers a wide range of breaking and feature stories and has a special knack for people profiles. Off the clock, Ali is happiest walking through Bloordale with headphones on, picking through local produce markets, sipping bubble tea and snapping pics of street art.

With files from Salma Ibrahim, Taylor Simmons