Improving Disability Access at Film Festivals

A generic shot of plush red theater seating


By: Superfest Co-Directors Cathy Kudlick and Emily Beitiks


For the last nine years, the Longmore Institute on Disability has led Superfest Disability Film Festival, the longest running festival of its kind. We approach this event that is first and foremost for disabled people as an opportunity to discover and model what cutting-edge access can look like. Whether it involves spaces, the movie-going experience, or the content of films, we work hard to establish an environment where we provide as many accommodations as possible *before* guests have to ask. Three decades after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) went into law, it's high time disabled people should be able to expect to watch a movie without having to make a fuss. Not only that, but various access features benefit far more people than we can ever know.

So what does access look like?

The bad news? Access is messy, complex, creative work. The good news? Access is messy, complex, creative work. Pick a place to start and dive in.

  • Think of it as an art, rather than a science. Yes, there are some guidelines and even requirements in some instances, but if you approach it as a human enterprise you'll have more leeway and fun, achieving better results in the end.
  • Use open captioning. We play all our films with open captioning and have never received a complaint that it is distracting. In addition, we have a live captioner to provide access during live speaking events. These features are crucial for people who are hard of hearing or Deaf. But they also benefit non-native speakers as well as anyone who might find reading text an easier way to process information.
  • In addition, if you're hosting a large public event or if someone requests it, ASL is a must. It is to captioning what hearing someone sing a song is to reading a transcript compiled by a non native speaker of that song. Think of ASL as a dramatic and expressive language. Moreover, having interpreters allows Deaf filmmakers, panelists, and audience members to express themselves.
  • Make audio description (AD, also called video description) easily available for blind and low vision attendees, who--contrary to public misconceptions--can be big movie fans. By offering a narrated audio track that uses silent moments in the film, AD speaks relevant visual information such as the text of the love note lying on the table or the dead body lying on the sofa. AD is in its infancy and requires subjective skills such as whether to describe race and other physical characteristics. (For helpful information about services and approaches, visit Thomas Reid’s podcast on “Flipping the Switch on Audio Description” or this panel discussion Superfest co-presented on “The Art of Audio Description” with SFFilm

    There are many different strategies for audio description, and it’s important that you explore them and find what’s right for the culture of your festival. Sometimes audio description is offered with headsets, whether a pre-recorded track or provided live by professional audio describers. At our festival, we require all our filmmakers to get their films audio described, a service we provide when filmmakers’ funds are limited. While audio description is crucial for blind visitors, open audio description can create a barrier for people with sensory disabilities who sometimes find it overwhelming and distracting. We alternate screenings with open and closed audio description, providing an alternative screening with the reverse provided.

  • It's also important to consider how visually accessible your physical program and website are for patrons with vision impairments. While there are some guidelines for best practices that you can find [here], you don't need to settle for an unattractive program. Remember that many people over 40 and most people over 60 will be glad not to have to struggle with tiny grey letters!. For website accessibility, here is a useful checklist of what's required by Web Content Accessibility Guide (WCAG) standards.
  • Making a film festival accessible often means ruling out more traditional venues. Even a “wheelchair accessible” theater may only have two spaces available for wheelchair riders, far from able to accommodate an audience such as ours where we typically welcome around 25 wheelchair and mobility device users. We seek out flat auditoriums without bolted seating so we can provide many different wheelchair seating options. This allows wheelchair riders to sit where they want with friends who may or may not be wheelchair users. (Before you object by saying you've never seen more than one or two wheelchair users at a movie theater, consider why this might be so!) Lastly, make sure that as you scope out your venue, you consider that the stage is accessible--how heartbreaking to be a filmmaker who can't speak to the audience or collect an award!
  • A nonstandard venue also makes it easier to accommodate patrons who can't spend hours seated in the confined chairs of most theaters. We provide some bench seating for patrons of all sizes to make sure we have seats that don’t assume a certain body type. Our bean bag chairs have been a godsend for people with chronic pain or who need to stretch out and lay horizontal for the many hours of a film festival.
  • As more patrons deal with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS), it's important to work with a venue to adjust their cleaning policy. We bring our own scent-free soap, ask our venues to use them for the week leading up to the event, and remind patrons not to wear scented products to the festival. We also provide a seating section for people with chemical sensitivity set apart from the main crowd, just in case our warnings not to wear scented products get disregarded. Conversations around MCS are still relatively new, so what seems novel today, may be standard soon - just think about how hard it was once for many venues to imagine restricting cigarette smoking!
  • Where possible, try to carve out somewhere people can go to get away from the crowd, such as a separate quiet area. This especially benefits neurodiverse people, but also anyone who needs a place to unwind after an intense film. Just make sure that signage indicates how the room is to be used--no, this is not a place for you to call your old friend and catch up.
  • Think of compliance with the law as doing the bare minimum rather than your ultimate goal. The mood you set on your website says a lot to your patrons with disabilities. If you settle for the standard language of “reasonable accommodations,” people won't feel welcome at all. Why not a more inviting statement like, “We welcome the opportunity to make our festival accessible to all patrons. If you need an accommodation, please reach out to...” and provide a specific name/contact info if possible. List all accessibility features clearly on your website so your guests don’t have to dig deep to know if they can attend or not.
  • Now that you know how to do it, keep offering some form of digital access for your festival! We heard from many disabled people that COVID made the world accessible in ways it never had been before. Even a highly accessible festival like Superfest has people unable to attend because their disabilities prevent them from getting out of bed and/or because they live halfway around the world. For tips on hosting accessible online zoom events, you can check out this guide we put together, “Ensuring Access in the Time of COVID-19.”  Especially if you’re already committed to inaccessible venues, online access is a decent short-term strategy for increasing inclusion.
  • Making mistakes goes with the territory, and that's ok! If patrons know you're working with them and are transparent about your efforts, about what you can (and can't) offer, they'll be on your side. And rather than take you to court as bad ADA publicity wrongly implies, they will likely have suggestions for workarounds. If you don't have all the answers, say so. If you don't have every access feature worked out, say so. When in doubt, apologize thoughtfully. FWIW, nearly everything we now know about the nitty gritty details in access came from making mistakes and learning from patient attendees who told us exactly where things weren't working. These are opportunities for growth and learning, not a reason to throw in the towel. It's a process that means being in for the long haul.
  • Inclusion of disabled people also entails support for the multiple identities that disabled people hold. For example, a festival that has accessible bathrooms for cisgendered people, but does not have an option for a transgendered person has not yet offered access. Because many disabled people live in poverty, we offer pay-what-you-can tickets to ensure that no one is turned away from lack of funds. The Queer Women of Color Film Festival is a leader in thinking through the intersections of festival access, check them out as a resource!


You might not be able to achieve top notch access overnight, but start somewhere and make a plan to grow from there. Developing access is fun, creative work that will expand your audience and offer unintended benefits for everyone. Enjoy the journey!

For more support and access consulting, please don’t hesitate to reach out!


*Photo by Paolo Chiabrando on Unsplash