Toronto International Film Festival should have more closed captions, film fan says

A movie fan with a rare genetic disorder that impairs his hearing and vision wants the Toronto International Film Festival to provide closed captioning for more of its screenings.

Michael McNeely wants festival to make experience better for fans with visual, hearing impairments

Toronto film fan Michael McNeely, whose vision and hearing is impaired due to a genetic condition, wants the Toronto International Film Festival to ensure more of its movies come with closed captioning. (CBC)

A movie fan with a rare genetic disorder that impairs his hearing and vision wants the Toronto International Film Festival to provide closed captioning for more of its screenings.

Michael McNeely, who has been going to the festival since 2012, said TIFF told him in an email that three films being shown at this September's festival will have captions. Ideally, McNeely said, those captions can be displayed on CaptiView systems — small screens that deliver captioning for individual fans — so fans like him can read along while others just watch. 

However, three movies out of some 400 isn't good enough, McNeely said.

"Just three films … that's the best they can do in 2016?" he said in an interview with CBC News.

It's so hard for someone who is deaf or hard of hearing to see English language films.- Michael McNeely, Toronto film fan

​McNeely, 28, has Usher Syndrome, a genetic condition that has affected how he sees movies. He can see the big picture, so to speak, but may miss smaller details. Hearing wise, he uses a cochlear implant, but often relies on closed captioning to gather other details.

McNeely said he's been to plenty of TIFF films every year, but he usually sticks to foreign films because they always have subtitles. English-language films are another story. This year, for example, he's not even interested in the star-studded Magnificent Seven remake that will open the festival this week as it won't have captions.

"It's so hard for someone who is deaf or hard of hearing to see English language films," he said.

The way the festival is set up, he said, makes it an "arduous task to actually get the accommodations that you require."

TIFF should form accessibility task force, McNeely says

McNeely said he's got two recommendations for TIFF, which he's outlined in several conversations with the organization. First, he says filmmakers should be encouraged to include subtitles as part of the submission process. Second, he thinks TIFF should strike an accessibility group that can help it sort through issues ranging from captioning to the process of buying tickets.

In a written statement sent to CBC News on Wednesday, TIFF says it continues to "strive to increase accessibility for all of our guests" and the festival says it welcomes McNeely's input into the process.

"We are working with our distribution partners to ensure that as many prints as possible are compatible.  We understand that that is an issue for some of our audience members and we will look into options to ensure all our patrons can access the screenings and experience in the most accessible means possible," the statement says.

"Our efforts to improve accessibility are always top of mind and quite often, we receive and encourage feedback and advice from Mr. McNeely and others as we have considered upgrades at TIFF Bell Lightbox. There are a number of suggestions that Mr. McNeely has outlined ... that we will certainly take away and consider." 

McNeely said his dream is to one day attend the Cannes Film Festival, but said he would like to be more comfortable at his hometown festival first. And, he said, it's not all bad news for hearing impaired film fans these days.

"I suppose it's better than being deaf in the 1960s and not having captioning but it's not better than being deaf in the 1920s which was the silent film era," he said. 


CBC's Metro Morning host Matt Galloway has interviewed Michael McNeely and Bea Jolley, an intervenor who helps McNeely by attending films with him and filling him in on sights and sounds he might miss.

Here is a full transcript of that interview:

Michael: CaptiView is assistive technology that allows people with hearing impairments, or others that would like help understanding what's going on inside the cinema, to be able to sit in their seats and watch subtitles privately.

Matt: How does it work? It's a small screen or something?

Michael: Yes, it's almost like a cell phone. You hold it sideways. That's probably what it looks like. And there's three lines and the lines stop it from interfering with other people.

Matt:  For you to be able to see a movie at TIFF, you've gone for years, how is CaptiView going to change your experience at the festival?

Michael: CaptiView will allow me to be able to see two English speaking films. Otherwise I've mostly gone to foreign films because those are the ones where they have subtitles built in.

Matt:  So, you would be able to read along on the subtitles but otherwise you wouldn't be able to understand what's happening in the films?

Michael:  I would not be able to understand the English speaking films, that's correct.

Matt:  How big of a change is that for you to be able to see some films, like two, but some films in English?

Michael: I've had a variety of different emotions. I think to me TIFF is like a child. Sometimes I feel like I need to reprimand the child but also I need to be proud of what the child has accomplished.

Matt: Sometimes you need to reprimand it? (laughs).

Michael: Yes, sometimes I feel like the child hasn't done enough. I was kind of disappointed in how they've advertised the CaptiView availability. They only emailed me about an hour before I was going to pick my films and get my tickets officially. So, it was a bit of a last minute put and I thought that it should have been handled with a little bit more fanfare.

Matt: Do you think that two films having this CaptiView technology ... is two films enough, then?

Michael: There's actually three films but I'm choosing to see two because I already have a hard enough time fitting them in my schedule. I'm seeing about 55 films this year. Ideally, it would be a first step forward and hopefully they would have more. Hopefully all the films at TIFF would have CaptiView or subtitles. One or the other. It would be nice to have both.

Matt: Why is it that you think TIFF doesn't have more films that have CaptiView, so that they can be and the festival can be as accessible as possible? Why is that not more widespread?

Michael: I think it's partly because they haven't made it a priority. I think you can say that in how they handled me, just telling me there was CaptiView an hour before I was going to register. So I think it's just a matter of priority and awareness.

Matt: One of the things that happens is you can go to the films on your own. You're going with intervenor Bea who's with us in studio as well. What does an intervenor do Bea?

Bea: The way I usually like to describe my job is that my job is to give Michael sensory information that he might miss because of the impairments that he has. So for example when it comes to watching a film, like a film we watched a little while ago a character would have a knife in their hand. He might not see such a fine detail so it's my job to let him know about things like that.

Matt: How do you do that in the course of watching the film?

Bea:  So, we've come up with sort of a new system that we've just been trying out in the last week and so far it has been really effective. What we have is Michael has his iPad and we've inverted the color settings so that it has a black background with white text, so that it's not too bright for people around us. So we were inspired by the way that they light the CaptiView screen and then I have a wireless keyboard in my lap. So, I sit beside Michael and if I see something on the screen that he might not ... or, for example, with subtitles they're not the same as closed captioning. So things like a siren or a doorbell. They don't say sound of that. So I might type "sound of doorbell" and if Michael didn't catch it I might just tap him on the arm and he knows to look at the screen.

Matt:  Michael how does that help with your appreciation and your enjoyment of the film?

Michael: It helps a lot. Because I've been able to pick up on some of the little details that I've missed. You know, I'm not so surprised when a character comes in, because maybe I've noticed that they've been coming on a motorbike or that they rang the doorbell. So it's not as much of a surprise to me when they enter the scene. Things like the knife for example that she used, I understand what the fight was about and why there was a fight and the consequences of that fight. And so ideally these would be the kinds of things I would ask my parents when I was very young and still do to some extent.

Matt: You talked about the different emotions you had in learning that these three films would have CaptiView. How accessible do you think a festival like TIFF — one of the biggest festivals in the world — how accessible should it be?

Michael: I have a love/hate relationship with it because I feel like it could do so much better and I don't understand why it isn't. And I hope that others can sympathize with my frustration in this matter.

Matt: Because you love movies.

Bea: You love movies.

Michael: Oh, I love movies. Movies are like an escape for me. They're an ability to transcend our borders without actually having to leave the comfort of our living room or auditorium. I think movies are amazing in that they bring us all together and we can talk about them for years to come after we watch them.

Matt: Bea, From your perspective how accessible should a festival like this be?

Bea: I think that it should be as accessible as possible. I think working with Michael has really opened my eyes to how many barriers there are in our world for people that are disabled. I think that especially something like TIFF, that is publicly funded and is an institution that we look to as a cultural beacon in our city, I think we should expect them to set the tone. And especially in a country like Canada where we pride ourselves on our progressivism and inclusivity. We need to walk the walk instead of just talk the talk.

Matt: It's great to have you both here. Enjoy the festival.

Bea: Thank you.

Michael: Thank you for having me.