Assistive Tech Is Here In The Form Of Apps, Gadgets For People With Wide Range Of Special Needs To Catch Film Shows At The Good Old Cinema

Like most teenagers growing up in the ’70s, George Abraham’s favourite film is Sholay. “I’ve seen it at least 10 times,” he gushes. But it wasn’t until last year that he laughed hysterically when a voice in his ears described Jai and Veeru’s antics as they zigzag through the countryside on a motorbike singing ‘Yeh dosti’. “I had no idea they were up to such mischief!” laughs the 60-year-old who suffered meningitis at 10 months old that damaged his optic nerves and left him with blurred vision for life.

Abraham, who cannot see beyond the end of his nose, loves the movies but usually either needs to go with someone who is willing to describe the scenes, or picks a film that is heavy on dialogue and easier to follow. “To avoid getting shushed by others in the audience,” he says. That was until last July, when he attended a screening of Sanju at the PVR Plaza in Delhi and became one of the first users of an intelligent system that the theatre has partnered with to offer XL Cinema, a free app developed by Mumbai-based MIT graduate Kunaal Prasad that narrates non-verbal parts of a movie — essentially everything going on between dialogues, including the expressions and special effects — as audio descriptions. Making strides in assistive technology and inclusive entertainment, the app, originally created to enable people to watch a movie in the theatres in a language of their choice, became a game changer for visually-challenged cinephiles. The audio content for the app is scripted by Saksham, a non-profit empowering those with print disability.

While accessibility in the space of recreation and entertainment is an issue that remains largely ignored, modern cinema operators are investing time, technology and training to make far-reaching changes, which come app-enabled, audiodescribed, subtitled, autistic-friendly and wheelchair apportioned — making it possible for people with different disabilities to enjoy an evening out at the movies.

In December, PVR Cinemas became one of the first to roll out an accessible cinema programme, ‘Cine Care’, across 37 out of their target of 50 cinemas, spending close to Rs 4 crore on assistive equipment like step sliders, roll-a-ramps, stair lifts. It also designed a training module that 90% of the staff has undergone. “It includes video scenarios of how to handle people with different disabilities, how to use assistive equipment, and disability etiquette for respectful communication. It’s about building an internal culture of sensitivity,” explains Sangeeta Robinson, who heads sustainability and inclusion at PVR.

Inox organised what was India’s first ‘whispering cinema show’ last month, where 70 visually impaired guests were each accompanied by a companion to whisper the scenes into their ears. Inox has also “procured and installed two-channel infra-red headphones for narrative audio and glasses for closedcaptioning”. Employees at three Cinepolis cinemas in Delhi have undergone sign language classes in order to better communicate with differently-abled guests and colleagues. “We believe that equal opportunity is important even for our employees. So, in select locations, we have differently-abled employees and have communication informing patrons of the same so they can interact accordingly,” said Devang Sampat, director of strategic initiatives, Cinepolis India.

Meanwhile, for those on the autistic spectrum, the hectic mall and movie environment can be a sensory minefield. To address this, SPI Cinemas in Chennai and Coimbatore have launched ‘SENS’, or sensory friendly shows, for those who can be hypersensitive to sound, light and movement at the movies. Following autism-specific principles to promote a sense of calm during a screening, the lights are turned up and sound levels turned low while unrestricted movement and chatter is allowed within the movie theatre. Also, the intermission is much longer. Launched last August with a screening of Jungle Book, these autismfriendly screenings take place on the first Sunday of every month.

The Rights of People with Disabilities Act, passed in December 2016, mandates that all electronic content come with “audiodescription, sign language interpretation and closed captioning”, something that the Indian Cinematograph Act is yet to execute. “What’s the point in having technology if there’s no content? To close-caption a film remains the discretion of the film studio or producer, but very few are doing it,” says PVR’s Robinson, who has written to the social justice and empowerment ministry about the accessible cinema mandate. She hopes things will change soon as “both producers and the government have the wherewithal to turn things around”.


XL Cinema App

Currently used by over 8,000 visually impaired people, it has 28 audiodescribed Bollywood films on it. One needs to download and log in to the app, plug in earphones and order a free audio ticket. The app tracks if the user is inside a theatre and accordingly syncs the audio description in real-time with what is playing on screen

Two-channel infrared headphones

Offers audio narrative for visually impaired. The sound controls allow users to modulate the sound reception. The user hears the soundtrack and a description of the action on the screen

Closed-captioning glasses

These receive captions/subtitles via infrared projection on the lens and allow users to adjust the position of the text. Captions appear as a distant virtual image to minimise strain on eyes due to refocusing between text and movie image

Sensory shows

Following autism-specific principles to promote a sense of calm during a screening, the lights are turned up, sound levels turned low. Unrestricted movement and chatter is allowed and the intermission is longer

Sano liftkar

A battery powered mobile stair climber with integrated chair (pic left), it can be used for transporting a user up or down very steep, narrow and spiral staircases while seated on the device and not in a wheelchair