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Cinema and theatre

Photo: Encourage your child to ask questions about the film or play before you go

Trips to the cinema and theatre can be a real treat, but deaf children often miss out on the quieter moments and may find it difficult to follow dialogue. This is especially true for animated films, which may not show accurate lip patterns. It’s also an issue at the theatre if actors turn away from the audience while speaking on stage.

Holly (18), who is deaf, explains her experience.

“Where I live, there aren’t many deaf people. Maybe that’s why accessibility is so bad at the cinema. My family and I rarely go now, we just wait for the DVD to come out. By then, the surprise of the plot is already ruined.

A cinema near me has started making sure they put on at least one subtitled screening a month of a popular film and it’s made a huge difference. They also asked if I would test out captioned glasses, of course I said yes.”

There are lots of ways to make cinema and theatre trips more accessible for your child. Check out our information on deaf-friendly entertainment and our top tips on how to get the most from your visit to the cinema or theatre.

Look for subtitled or captioned film screenings

If your child can keep up with reading subtitles, this is a great way to make sure they don’t miss a minute of the action. You can find subtitled cinema screenings near you, at Your Local Cinema.

It’s a good idea to contact the cinema when booking your tickets to avoid any disappointment on the day of your trip.

Ann, mum to Daniel (15) who is profoundly deaf, says:

“Most major digital film releases have subtitles embedded but cinemas only display the subtitles for selected accessible screenings. So, enjoying cinema as a family means finding subtitled screenings of the films we want to see and planning around them.

We generally have to travel 30 miles or so to access subtitled screenings; having a CEA card helps to offset some of the cost of travelling. Anyone aged eight or over and in receipt of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) or Personal Independence Payment (PIP) is eligible for a CEA card, which costs £6 per year but enables one of us to accompany Daniel free of charge when we pay for his cinema ticket. It’s easy to apply for a CEA card online by uploading proof of eligibility, for example, a copy of your DLA/PIP letter plus a recent photo.”

Captioned plays

Some theatre productions also offer captions on selected performances. There are two kinds of captions: open and closed.

Open captions are visible to everyone in the audience. See a list of events and performances with open captions.

Closed captions can only be seen by people with the appropriate equipment. Captions might be available on:

  • a handheld device
  • a small screen on the back of the seat in front
  • smart glasses your child can wear.

You will need to request this when you book your tickets. It’s a good idea to check the accessibility section of the theatre's website to see what’s available and make sure it will work for your child.

One deaf adult commented:

“The National Theatre has worked with technology companies to develop cutting-edge captioning glasses, so that every performance they put on can be accessible for deaf people who use captions. I was blown away. You can adjust the size, the colour and the position of the text so the captions are easy to read. As you can move the captions so they appear over the actor speaking on stage, you don’t miss a moment of the action craning your neck to read the captions on the opposite sides of the stage. Whether it’s going to a Christmas panto, studying Shakespeare at school, or taking your kids to see War Horse, I can’t wait to see more theatres start to invest in this technology and hopefully cinemas will do so too.”

Check for signed performances

Lots of theatres offer several signed performances of each production. This means a British Sign Language (BSL) or Irish Sign Language (ISL) interpreter will stand on the side of the stage and interpret the script used by the performers at the same time as it’s being performed. Most theatres will reserve seats close to the interpreter for anyone who needs to see them, so make sure you specify this when booking your tickets.

There are also several theatre companies based in the UK which use BSL as a central part of their productions, such as Deafinitely Theatre, Taking Flight and Handprint Theatre. You could also search for ‘deaf theatre companies’ online for shows in your area.

Stay in the Loop

Most theatres and cinemas have a hearing loop system installed. Some venues may be able to provide a personal neck loop. If your child’s hearing aid or cochlear implant has the ‘T’ or ‘MT’ setting enabled, sounds will be amplified and sent directly into their hearing device.

You and your child could speak to an audiologist to find out more about the ‘T’ and ‘MT’ settings and to make sure they are switched on and suitable for your child to use.

Think about where to sit

When visiting a cinema or theatre, it might be helpful to think about where to sit in order to give your child the best possible listening conditions. This is especially important if your child is unable to make use of a loop system, but still needs to access sound. You could phone or email the venue when booking your tickets to ask about this. Most venues will be happy to accommodate a request to reserve seats.

Abigail, mum to Sebastian (4) who is moderately to severely deaf, says:

“Because my son is still quite young, his hearing aids are not adjusted to enable him to use the hearing loop in a theatre. This means that he has to rely on hearing aids alone, and although these work well for him, the range of the aids (1–2m) means that in most theatre spaces he needs to sit close to the front in order to be able to hear. When booking seats I always try to book in the front couple of rows. However, with many children’s shows, seating is unreserved.

At first I was anxious about making a fuss, but I’ve found theatres to be extremely helpful. I usually phone ahead and explain that my son needs to sit near to the front, and every venue that we have gone to, has reserved us seats in the front couple of rows.”

Get prepared

Encourage your child to ask questions about the film or play before you go. It might help to use these prompts to prepare:

  • Is the plot likely to be very complicated? Could you give a simple explanation beforehand?
  • Will there be any new or unusual vocabulary?
  • Will there be lots of noisy action scenes? Your child might like to have the option of taking out their aids or processors if parts of the film or play are very loud. Make sure you have a plan on how to do this safely so they don't get lost.