Express View on disability access: Everyone in movie halls
Eight years after a landmark piece of legislation enshrined the rights of all persons with disabilities (PwDs) “to participate in recreational activities equally with others”, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, on January 8, issued its draft “Guidelines of Accessibility Standards in the Public Exhibition of Feature Films in Cinema Theatres for Persons with Hearing and Visual Impairment”. The guidelines, for which stakeholder comments are invited till February 15, constitute another welcome step towards ensuring that an experience that most movie buffs take for granted can be accessed by a section of Indians who continue to be largely excluded from it. They carry forward the spirit of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPwD) Act of 2016.
According to estimates of the World Health Organisation, approximately 84 million Indians are deaf and hard of hearing and 75 million are blind and visually impaired. There has long been a demand for making the movie-going experience more accessible to them. Efforts by organisations, such as the Delhi-based NGO Saksham, and a handful of willing collaborators in the industry, like actor-producer Aamir Khan, have resulted in some films in the last couple of decades, such as Dangal and Munnabhai MBBS, having features like audio description, subtitles and closed captions. The draft guidelines require producers to deliver two versions of a film for certification by the CBFC, including one with accessibility features enabled, and call on theatres to schedule special shows for PwDs and the use of special equipment and mobile apps. Such steps can help make accessibility the norm as is the case in countries such as the US and UK. In the UK, theatres have seats into which a visually impaired viewer’s headphones may be plugged so that she can hear the audio description of the film being played.
In December 2022, the Supreme Court formed a committee to make the court more disabled-friendly and has recently released a handbook for combating stereotypes about PwDs. Last year, the government made it mandatory for digital offerings to meet the standards set under the RPwD Act. Enabling PwDs to more easily access and savour one of India’s most beloved art forms, a globally exported cultural product and significant source of soft power — cinema — is yet another step in the right direction.