Dear Imprudence: How terrible when blind people are seen and heard

I read this letter to Dear Abby and Abby’s awesomely ableist response. I wonder how she would have responded to a different letter. One that was more like this:

Dear Abby,

I was really looking forward to the opportunity to go out with my friend the other night and enjoy a good movie. I don’t get to go out to many of the popular films when they’re playing and everyone is buzzing about them, because very few theatres have descriptive audio available in them, and even when they do, not all films come packaged with such things. I should probably mention that I’m blind.

For example, if I go through the Regal Entertainment Group’s website, I see they have 605 screenings of movies with Descriptive Audio. This may seem like a lot, but counting up all their movie theaters across the US and guessing an average of 10 screens per theater, they have 4400 screens! That’s about 14% of all their showings! And I know from experience that dealing with staff at these theaters can be difficult: When I called a theater in my neighbourhood about descriptive audio, they told me where I could go to see movies that are captioned, which is not exactly helpful.

Anyway, my friend gracious agreed to not only go to a movie with me, but take the time and effort to let me know what was going on on the screen, so I could enjoy the movie too – at least, if the theater we went to didn’t have a descriptive audio option. Blind people are well aware of the various options they have to enjoy movies and other visual art – they certainly don’t need sighted people scolding them over such things!

So, you can imagine my dismay that, at this opportunity to enjoy a movie together, and be able to enjoy a movie while everyone else was talking about it, people were rudely “shushing” my friend, telling her to shut up. I know that it can be difficult and frustrating to have noise when you’re enjoying a movie, but I wonder why these people couldn’t find a less rude way of asking my friend to keep her voice down, or even just move a bit further away so that we, too, could enjoy the movie.

I know you’ll understand my frustration, Abby. I hope that you’ll remind sighted people that blind people have social lives and like to go out and enjoy things just as much as they do. I believe in my heart you’d never tell a blind person to just stay home and watch DVDs rather than risk bothering the sighted public.


A Blind Person Who Wishes the ADA Meant Actual Accessible Content For All

P.S. Abby, surely you have statistics on the number of DVDs that are packaged with descriptive audio, right? According to Wikipedia, such DVDs are pretty rare. I bet you already know that the number of DVDs released with descriptive audio in the US in 2009 was 11.

18 thoughts on “Dear Imprudence: How terrible when blind people are seen and heard

  1. This is fantastic. I read the original and was horrified by it, but hadn’t yet formulated a response — and never would have come up with one as good as yours. Abby does sometimes run responses from people who disagree with her advice. Would you consider sending exactly this letter to her, to see if she’d run it?

  2. For me, your post raises the question of what to do when there are irreconcilable disability needs in the same space. The situation would have been an impossible one for me, because I am autistic with an auditory processing condition that leaves me with no ability to filter out competing sounds. So, moving somewhere else in the theatre would not work, because I can hear very acutely. When I’m hearing more than one thing at a time, everything becomes garbled, and my system becomes flooded and overwhelmed.

    If I had been at the theatre in this situation, I very likely would have left and watched the movie when it came out on DVD. I would not have engaged the people talking; I never do anymore, since talking is generally privileged over silence in this culture. As it is, I only go to films with subtitles because that way, I can block my hearing and still enjoy the film. My strategy isn’t distracting to anyone else (so I avoid people getting in my face about it), but when folks want to chat, they think I’m being anti-social when I don’t want to socialize. They don’t realize that I’m using all my energy just to be in the space and defend against whatever sound finds its way through my earplugs.

  3. *nodnod* I totally understand that, and the whole thing with conflicting needs is really important, and is always being negotiated. (For me, the place designated for wheelchair-users in our local theater is the very best place to sit if I want to throw up.) This was more addressed to non-disabled people who seem very shocked that the ADA does not actually mean much when it comes to accommodations beyond ramps, and sometimes not much even then.

    (And, of course, Canada doesn’t have an ADA. I’m sure there is a theater here that has descriptive audio, but I couldn’t find one. The theaters I called could only tell me where I could go to see something subtitled. But I won’t pretend I called every theater in the city.)

  4. @Rachel: That’s another thing that bugs me. The number of movies available with captioning (excluding foreign subtitled films) is on par with the number available with audio description.

    I have auditory processing issues that affect my comprehension of dialogue in movies. So on the rare occasions I do see a movie in the theater, I miss half the dialogue and still have to end up renting the DVD later anyway… and end up paying too much for something that should’ve been accessible to me in the first place.

    (I still haven’t seen Inception, despite desperately wanting to, because I know it’d be incomprehensible without being able to decipher the dialogue…)

  5. I sent a link to this post to Abby’s people with some additional disappointed comments of my own. I have never seen a single response from her that I totally agreed with, but this was particularly loathsome. Bleargh.

    I hate when people talk in the movies too, but as soon as I was made aware that a person’s needs were being accommodated I would STFU.

  6. Oh, also on the note of both descriptive audio and captioning, the situation is even worse than the averages make it seem– because aside from the ridiculously low percentage of accessible screens, there’s no guarantee that one can even get to one of those cinemas in the first place.

    Take Athens, Georgia, where I was living recently. Aside from a couple dollar theaters and an indie theater, there are two major blockbuster theaters in town. They’re both owned by smaller companies, and neither offers captioning or description. If you want that, you’ve got to go to Atlanta. Oh, and did I mention that if you can’t drive a car, the only options for getting between the two towns are an airport shuttle that’s $45 each way, or Greyhound which only runs 2-3 times a day?

  7. Codeman, stop whining. Here’s some DVDs, don’t whine about your disabilities ever again! /sarcasm

    Abby’s response hurt my head… well the suggestion that the friend should go home and describe the movie when it’s on DVD. And presumably every other movie so they won’t bother you in the theater. (General you, somebody who just likes saying SHUSH louder than the people talking. Also, the LW should never ever ever go to an Indian movie in India – these are family affairs, the kids have fun and dance along.)

    I admire those that can describe a movie as it’s happening, that seems a bit much for me.

    The only DVD I’ve ever found with a description was at the local library, but I could tell from the case that it was a Canadian DVD. (It was a Canadian *film*, but the case was made there.)

  8. Thank you for that! I have trouble hearing dialogue over background noise and have family members that get irritated when I use captioning to enjoy tv. Without it, everything is just a jumble. I rarely watch movies in a theatre. I didn’t even know movies came with captioning.

  9. The only movie I’ve found with an audio description without looking specifically for it was the Percy Jackson film, which is funny considering how ableist that movie is.

  10. @Kaitlyn: I’ve seen quite a few DVDs with descriptive audio lately; it seems like this may be the year for it. Most of Universal’s and Sony’s major productions recently have offered it, and Disney’s been doing so to a lesser extent.

  11. For some reason, I pictured the movie theater scene (clip here; starts at 7:00 in) from Dancer in the Dark as I was reading the column. Which is interesting, considering that particular film, but still.

    Great takedown, Anna!

  12. Excellent response! I am blind and often avoid seeing movies in theatres for this very reason; people often shush my friends when they are describing films to me.

    I have been able to find some descriptive DVDS, but very seldom can I find any for newer movies. I live in a fairly small city, and so I don’t have any theatres that provide descriptive audio.

    Thanks so much for addressing this issue so eloquently!

  13. It would also be nice if Dear Abby had addressed the especially ablist bit of the letter writer suggesting the companion “explain” to the blind person that this was a public place. After all, an adult person with a disability might otherwise never have encountered the idea of public space before and has to have it explained by the non-disabled companion. She’s not just providing audio description and possibly transportation, she’s also there to explain and enforce social customs!

  14. Yeah, I’ve run into this before – my friend D is legally blind, and usually when we’re out at the movie we’ll read subtitles or screens of text to him. I remember when we went to see one of the Star Wars prequels someone shushing me while I was reading the subtitles for some alien conversation – but, you know, D the super-geek should have waited however many months until it came out on DVD, not participated in part of a major cultural event. And we were already sitting in the very back row. So: stop being such a jerkface, Dear Abby.

  15. I am blind and autistic with auditory issues, speak English as a second language. Bottom line: no movie theater for me. However, thanks for this great post. People with disabilities are too often told to just leave the public space.

  16. Guess what?

    The one theater near me that offered captioning an description has now closed… to be reopened later by a company other than Regal. So now Captionfish shows no accessible movies within a 60-mile radius.

    (Wonder if the new owners will keep the equipment for providing captions and description, or if that was Regal’s property?)

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