Going to the movies in Hong Kong just became a lot easier for city’s visually impaired thanks to UA Cinemas
New programme allows guide dogs to accompany owners to see films, while machine gives the blind and partially blind description of what’s happening on screen
“Good girl,” exclaims Jean Lin Wing-chee, as guide dog Bella leads her to the ticketing kiosk at UA Cinemas in Maritime Square in Tsing Yi.
The four-year-old Labrador retriever passes to the side as Lin takes a ticket from the girl behind the counter.
Moving from behind the counter, the staff member then offers her arm to Lin, a visually impaired 50-something who has retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder caused by a loss of cells in the retina, the light sensitive tissue that lines the back of the eye.
Lin locks her hand around the girl’s upper arm so she can be guided to the theatre.
A yank on her collar lets Bella know Lin is ready to go, and on arriving at House 2, the Labrador steps ahead of her owner to let her know it’s time to sit down. A few minutes later, the two have settled in and are ready for the opening scene. For the next hour or so, Bella can get some rest while laying flat in between Lin’s seat and the one in front of her.
As the movie, Tomorrow Is Another Day, begins, Bella is joined by eight of her fellow guide dogs, some of whom are still in training. All are getting used to the routine of taking their owners to the cinema.
For a city that is home to 174,800 people with different levels of visually disabilities, a trip to the cinema like this is a rare occasion because trainers are not always allowed in places with their guide dogs.
Without the on-site training, dogs are unable to get used to the environment that they’re in, but an exception has been made during a cinema training programme offered by the Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association, in cooperation with UA Cinemas.
“I don’t usually go to the movies with just Bella, because of the need for an on-the-spot verbal description of what’s going on, so I normally would go with family members or friends,” Lin says.
Even with the narration whispered in her ear, Lin doesn’t always follow what’s happening on screen.
“Most of the time, it’s up to my companions to explain to me what’s going on in the scenes so the critical details aren’t missed out, and I am able to carry the story forward.”
Although, by the time she gets the hang of a storyline, she is often thrown off by a silence in a scene.
“It’s most confusing when there are a number of people in a dialogue, or during those conversation- heavy sections, because it’s nearly impossible to work out who is who,” she says.
On this day, however, Lin along with 30 other partially or fully blind people, is able to follow all the action as the group scrambles to put on the wireless headphones that are connected to a machine giving a visual description of the plot.
The new technology is the first of its kind in the city and transmits an audio description giving a blow-by-blow account of what’s going on, such as describing a character’s gestures and facial expressions.
“With this device, those with visual disabilities will really be able to enjoy the movie without having to feel burdened,” UA Cinema managing director Ivan Wong Chi-fai says.
“We wanted to go ahead with the initiative, even though we are still in talks with movie production companies. With this kick-start, we hope this can encourage the beginning of providing audio descriptions.”
Lin, a mother, says she has long been deprived of enriching experiences at the cinema.
“In the future, I don’t have to worry about asking someone to explain everything to me, which I am afraid will disturb the other sighted audience,” she adds.
Soon enough Lin will be able to head to the movies by herself, with the help of Bella who has been spending plenty of time at Maritime Square, sniffing her way through the UA Cinemas location so she can get used to guiding the movie buff to the theatre.
“An important part of this training is for the puppies to experience what it’s like to be in that environment, when a movie is being played on the big screen amid the crowd in the lobby, the pitch black surroundings, and the loud sound system that goes on,” explains Fianna Chi Tan-ning, the chairwoman of the Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association’s service and support committee.
Chi says that while some dogs would become comfortable at finding their way almost straight away, it may take longer for others to get it right.
“Sometimes, they may be alerted by the sudden darkness, so that’s why during training, the trainers monitor the dog’s reactions and focus on their temperament, then provide additional guidance from there.”
The aim, she adds, is to make the dogs feel calm inside the theatres so they can settle their owners as much as they can.
The training takes into account an owner’s actual needs, from purchasing tickets at the counters, entering the cinemas and finding their seats, to heading to the bathroom and eventually leaving afterwards.
Not only are their four-legged companions coached, the theatre’s staff are also getting educated about the visually impaired and their service dogs.
The city’s visually impaired residents can now take advantage of these services at UA Cinemas Maritime Square and Times Square in Causeway Bay.