TIFF 2016: This Deaf-Blind Critic Wants to Review 46 Movies

Did you hear the one about the deaf-blind film critic?

It sounds like the setup of a bad joke, but Michael McNeely, who is legally deaf and blind, takes movie watching very seriously. So much so in fact, that he has invested approximately $750 into seeing as many films at TIFF this year as possible. 46 to be exact. 

McNeely has Usher Syndrome, which affects the eyes and ears. He can see to a certain extent and has a cochlear implant which allows for some hearing, but for him to follow a film, it must be subtitled, or preferably, captioned. For English movies, some cinemas provide such captioning in the form of CaptiView technology, a personal device that provides closed captioning for the hard of hearing.

Hailing from Kingston, Ontario, McNeely’s love of film began in his hometown’s independent arthouse cinema.


“I went to see a foreign film and then I realized oh my god I can actually watch these films by myself and I can understand them. Before that my mother would come with me to the films, they were English speaking films and I’d always end up having a lot of questions for my parents, so sometimes I felt frustrated about going to the movies, but just going to a theatre and being able to understand a movie was a mindblowing experience. I could put myself in the shoes of others and understand different experiences and learn about new things every day.”

To get the most out of a movie, McNeely will still bring his “intervenor” with him.

“Sometimes if it’s a shaky camera type of film then I’ll have a hard time understanding what’s going on or figuring things out. I used to just keep questions in my head about things that I was confused about and then ask them after the movie. Now we figured out a system where I can use my iPad, invert the colour settings so you have a black background and it’s not disruptive at the cinema, attach a wireless keyboard and my intervenor can type to me when she thinks I don’t understand something or I’ll ask a question and she’ll type the answer to me, so that’s one of the methods I’m trying out this year. “

McNeely attended Queen’s University where he wanted to get a degree in film studies, but the school’s accessibility limitations made that virtually impossible, so he studied English instead. In 2012, he attended the Toronto International Film Festival for the first time, seeing 11 films, and was particularly taken with Michael Haneke’s Amour. The next two years he would take his vacation time during TIFF and see 42 films at each fest. Last year he was feeling depressed about both the lack of captioned options, and the quality of the few films he saw, so he went to significantly fewer.


For him to get motivated to hit the festival this year with the same fervor he had in previous years, McNeely wanted to be able to share his experience with as many people as possible, so he posted in the Facebook group Bunz Employment and Entrepreneurial Zone in search for an outlet to host his reviews. Dork Shelf gladly took him up on his offer.

“This is something I always wanted to do but never had the time to fight for it. In all fairness life is busy and you get caught up doing other things so I pursued a degree in English and I became an English teacher. I’ve always enjoyed movies and my friends always ask me what kind of movies they should be watching. So if I’m going to all these TIFF movies I might as well help people by saving them from sitting through a crappy movie.”

When watching a film, I look for characters that I can relate to or that fascinate me. I’m not interested in stock characters or stereotypical characters – I’m fascinated by characters that constantly surprise you about who they are and what they are capable of. I’m engaged with plots that are surprising and unpredictable, innovative. I feel that we’re not challenging enough with our films nowadays – the status quo seems safe and people eat it contentedly. I also pay more attention nowadays to how minorities, characters with disabilities, and women are portrayed.”

In addition to guiding people away from less than stellar films, McNeely also wants to increase accessibility awareness and hold TIFF to a higher accessibility standard. Of the hundreds of English films playing at TIFF this year, only three have the option of CaptiView (A Monster Calls, The Levelling and Boys in the Trees). He didn’t find out which movies had this until about an hour before he had to pick out his first batch, which is already insanely difficult to plan out when you’re trying to schedule up to five films per day. The frustration the public has experienced redeeming large TIFF ticket packages is well documented, so as you can imagine these issues are only amplified for people with disabilities.


McNeely does a lot of advocacy work with businesses who come to him to help them improve their accessibility standards.”I’m passionate about Human Rights laws because I feel sometimes people are discriminated against and they don’t understand that they can have it better and I would love to help them have it better.” He’s currently studying for his LSATs and looking at law schools so he can go into Human Rights Law.

“They had an advertisement that said ‘TIFF is your home’, but if TIFF was my home I’d be able to turn on the subtitles wouldn’t I?”