An Open Letter to TIFF

Dear TIFF / Piers Handling, Director and Chief Executive Officer of TIFF

Congratulations on having three films with CaptiView compatibility at this year’s festival. As you know, this will help people who have hearing impairments understand what is happening on the screen by allowing them to read subtitles privately, via a small mobile device. I have also witnessed the CaptiView device help others without hearing impairments, such as English language learners.

However, I hope that this is just the beginning. There is so much more the Toronto International Film Festival can do to be accessible and inclusive, and I will use this letter to highlight some of the areas that need improvement.

Firstly, with regards to CaptiView, the notification process needs work. It was my conversations with TIFF Ticketing Services Assistant Manager Ruby Bantock that informed me that there were three films with CaptiView this year. It should not be up to the Customer Support Personnel to inform audiences of which films have captioning/subtitling support. Furthermore, I was informed the day when I was going to redeem my first ticket package – luckily, I had time to integrate two of these films into my schedule. I believe that, during the submission process, you should have filmmakers indicate whether or not their film can be compatible with CaptiView (or another method, perhaps, open display of subtitles). This would mean that by the time the end of August nears, TIFF would have already established that certain films have CaptiView. 

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This concern also goes for the rest of the year – please advertise CaptiView-enabled films more prominently and earlier, so I don’t have to ask Customer Support all the time, or so they don’t have to personally e-mail me each time something is accessible. I want to take all the guess work and stress out of going to the cinema.

I was lucky to even get tickets for one CaptiView-enabled film as it was almost off-sale. What is the purpose of having CaptiView compatibility if d/Deaf people such as myself cannot take advantage of the opportunity? Another solution might be always reserving seats to CaptiView films for those who have a hearing impairment or otherwise benefit from CaptiView (such as English language learners).

It has been brought to my attention that due to budget limitations, many filmmakers may not be able to afford making their films accessible. Since it behooves us to have accessible content playing at TIFF, perhaps TIFF could look into partnering with some of these filmmakers to help them make their films accessible – whether it be helping them create subtitles or be CaptiView compatible.

Attending the Festival can be a cumbersome and aggravating process. Firstly, there is the complex ticket-purchasing system. I was not informed that I would not be able to redeem my Daytime and Back Half passes (to convert them into tickets of actual movies) until today, a day after tickets were put for sale for the general public. This has created unnecessary stress on my part, since I know that if one of my films are off-sale today, I may not be able to see anything for that time frame that is accessible. I would like to see the creation of an Accessibility Taskforce that would look into the matter of streamlining the process of redeeming tickets for people with disabilities, such as myself. Going on the phone is not accessible for me, and your online system is not reliable (news sources indicate your partnership with Ticketmaster was not advertised well and led to mass confusion amongst the general public). Many organizations, including those in the entertainment industry, have accessibility groups that meet regularly and are able to address problems that the community has noticed. Is there a reason why one has not been formed for TIFF yet?

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Furthermore, TIFF should take a note from Anime North, which provides a resting area for people with disabilities. The Festival is insane at the best of times – and a struggle for people with disabilities to navigate safely if they are exhausted. I would have suggested the TIFF Members’ Lounge as a resting area for people with disabilities, but time and time again, I have been told it is reserved for people with a higher-level membership than I have (I am purposefully staying away from how classist and financially inaccessible this is, especially for people with disabilities, who typically have less income than other segments of the population). Surely they all haven’t paid for approximately 55 films? Despite buying so many tickets, I still feel like an outsider and I’m not sure how much patience I will have. TIFF should have an area where people with disabilities can relax and can meet those who are attending films with them – otherwise, it may be hard to find others in the busy, packed crowds during the Festival.

Watching those advertisements at the beginning of each film can get somewhat repetitive – but don’t worry, I’m not going to complain about that, since I know that’s par for the course. However, I will complain about the lack of captioning or subtitling for these materials. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act – which your accessibility policy indicates you are committed to following – mandates that communications to customers should be made accessible. If these advertisements are not captioned or subtitled, why am I watching them? Yes, I know I can go online and see the same information – but, perhaps you should link everyone to transcripts of the advertisements and make it public on your home page that you are doing so because the advertisements lack captioning. Sometimes, appearances are everything and when the first thing we see is not accessible… well, that’s problematic.

I was told that there will be reserved seats for people with mobility issues but not for people with other disabilities. In all fairness, my blindness is a mobility issue, and my blindness should warrant me a seat close to the front of the screen regardless of when I arrive there. Disabilities don’t need to be separated or segregated further in terms of type or severity – if you have a disability, you should be able to find a seat reserved for you. 

Next, I would like to bring to your attention that I e-mailed TIFF Customer Support regarding having open display of subtitles for the screening of Purple Rain which was to take place in the middle of August. Customer Support e-mailed me back prior to the screening and told me they would look into the screening’s accessibility. I never heard back afterwards. I strongly believe that films which currently have captioning and subtitles (including Purple Rain) on DVD or other formats, should have captioning and subtitle support for those who would benefit from it at the theatre. Otherwise, why bother screening it? 

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By not making films accessible, you are denying a large segment of the population enjoyment of film culture. After all, TIFF wants to be the centre of film culture. Surely, people with disabilities have the right (not a privilege, not a random alignment of the stars) to experience what being in the centre of film culture is like just as much as everyone else does.

I would appreciate TIFF publicly holding themselves accountable to be more accessible and showing the public how they are, in fact, being more accessible. It makes me wonder why TIFF is not celebrating that three of their films are CaptiView compatible and why not more people know about this incredible leap forward. I always thought I’d be relegated to watching foreign films (happily) for the rest of my life at TIFF, but I am happy that some English films are becoming more accessible. But, let’s talk about it! Let’s show the efforts here – let’s show the breakthroughs and the obstacles and what we can improve on. That is the purpose of this open letter – to help indicate some further steps forward in terms of accessibility and inclusivity.

I look forward to meeting other people with disabilities and talking about TIFF together. You know, it could be an interesting filmic journey in and of itself. All that is required is just a little bit of accountability and a little bit of being proactive.

Kind regards,

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Michael McNeely

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