By Brendan Swift

Australia’s four major cinema chains have agreed to install new audio description and captioning technology across more than 240 cinemas after initially arguing it would be too costly and they be granted an exemption from the Disability Discrimination Act.

The Federal Government has pledged $470,000 to the upgrade, which is aimed at improving the current dire situation where less than 0.3 per cent of all cinema sessions in Australia are accessible to people who are visually or hearing impaired.

Hoyts Corporation, Greater Union Organisation, Village Cinemas and Reading Cinemas had previously offered to lift the number of current accessible cinemas from 12 to 35 over two-and-a-half years.

The cinemas argued that upgrading the extra 23 cinemas would cost more than $500,000 – about five times what the exhibitors had so far spent on upgrades for the hearing impaired.

“Cinemas need to remain profitable to remain in business. We are not trying to abrogate our responsibilities,” the cinemas said in a submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission in March.

However, the AHRC rejected the argument. The cinemas will now upgrade about 145 screens (about 60 per cent of the long term goal of 242) by the end of 2012 compared to the cinema chains’ original proposal to upgrade 35 cinemas.

The cinemas will also pay the extra costs above the Government’s contribution.

Last weekend, the Community Services Minister Jenny Macklin and Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities, Bill Shorten, announced the deal.

“Cinemas have a responsibility to cater for the entire community and at the moment the situation is clearly not up to scratch,” Senator Macklin said.

In addition to the grant funding, the Government has committed $30,000 to subsidise the costs of a new Accessible Cinema Advisory Group (ACAG), with members from the cinema industry and the disability sector.

The funding will allow the ACAG to continue to advise and assist the cinema industry to improve cinema accessibility in Australia and monitor the implementation of the Cinema Access Implementation Plan.

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