When I was in tenth grade, my friends and I frequently went to the local movie theater and would spend time with other students from our high school. At the time, I didn’t know a lot about assistive technology or going to the movies with vision impairment, so often times I just sat there and tried to guess what was going on. As I’ve gotten older though, I’ve learned a lot about using assistive technology at the movie theater, and have been able to go to several films since. Today, I will be sharing my tips for going to the movies with visual impairment.
Request an assistive listening device
Assistive listening devices, sometimes called descriptive audio, allow users to listen to audio description while watching a film. Important visual information is narrated during natural pauses in dialogue so that the user isn’t distracted. Common examples of items that are described include:
- Character names
- Flashing light sequences
- Backgrounds and settings
At most movie theaters, the device can be requested at the ticket purchase window. One important thing to note is that some movie theaters require you sign your name and give your address when you borrow one of these devices, and the form to sign it out often isn’t in large print. This information is just to make sure you don’t walk off with the device.
Charging money for the use of an assistive listening device violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title III, Section VI.
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Online flashing lights guides
I have photosensitivity in addition to vision impairment, so I often run a web search ahead of time with the name of the movie along with any of these phrases to see if there are a lot of flashing lights:
- flashing lights
- strobe lights
- migraine triggers
- trigger warning
Since June 2018, many movie theaters have begun posting signs about movies that have large amounts of strobe lights, after a popular children’s movie was released that contained long sequences of strobe lights that could trigger a seizure or other adverse health effect. Pay attention to posted warning signs like these if flashing lights are a concern.
Where to sit?
Often times, sitting in the first row of the theater is not the best idea for someone with vision impairment. I asked a few of my friends with different eye conditions and vision levels where they sit in the theater, and they responded with this:
- ”I have vision in half of one eye, so I sit on a seat near the end of a row towards the back.”
- ”My vision is best described as tunnel vision, so sitting in the center helps me see most of the action.”
- ”I have no usable vision, but I prefer to sit further back to avoid having the speakers blasting in my ears.”
- ”I hold screens very close to my face to see them, but I like to sit towards the front at the movies- third or fourth row.”
- ”My vision changes a lot, so I just sit wherever my friends sit and don’t worry about not being able to see the screen.”
Yes, I am one of those people who asks a lot of questions during a movie. For example, when my brother took me to see “Birdman,” there was no amount of audio description that could help me completely understand what was going on. Instead of constantly asking questions and disturbing others, my brother would whisper important information that the audio description would have ignored so that way I could keep up with what was going on.
I have a friend who is very sensitive to loud noises, especially low pitched ones. In order to help with this, they wear ear plugs or earphones that are unplugged during the film to help cancel out some of the noise. If using a descriptive audio device, moving the headphones slightly out of the headphone jack will create white noise in the form of static that may drown out more intense noises like explosions or loud music.
Dealing with strangers
There will always be strangers who are curious as to how or why someone with low vision goes to a movie theater. Remember that you have the right not to answer their questions, and can simply ignore them. If you choose to answer some of these common questions, I have written my typical responses below.
Are you totally blind?
Nope, I have low vision.
Are you able to see the screen?
Mostly, that’s why I use descriptive audio.
What’s descriptive audio?
It describes what is on the screen for me, like who is moving around, what is going on in the background, and who is talking.
Did you get a discount?
Nope, I paid the same price you did.
What’s the point of watching a movie if you can’t see it?
I can listen to it and I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.
Look at that blind girl!
Usually a comment from well-meaning parents of little kids, I usually just ignore it.
Do you have (insert disease here)?
Unless they guess what conditions I have correctly, which someone is yet to do, I just answer no and move away as quickly as possible.
Many people assume that those with vision impairments never leave the house, let alone go to the movies, because they believe there’s no way that they could enjoy watching a movie. That’s definitely not the case though. People with vision impairments can enjoy going to the movies just as much as their sighted friends, thanks to audio description and helpful sighted guides. Hopefully with these tips, your next movie outing will go smoothly and you’ll be able to enjoy the film!