Opinion: Selective Audio Description Isn’t Just Lazy, It’s Censorship

being blind is an interesting and consistently challenging way of life where you use adaptive technology to do things that most people take for granted on a regular basis. For example, want to microwave dinner? Hopefully, you ahve a system set up for you to navigate the buttons on your microwave (as many microwaves have flat buttons, and no built in braille), or you had the foresight to get something a little more accessible, like perhaps an Alexa enabled microwave. Then, you have to read the directions on the box. But there’s an app for that. Unfortunately, tonight’s selection isn’t quite being read that well by your app, and you’re not sure exactly how long it needs to cook in the microwave, so you pull up the handy dandy Be My Eyes, and have someone with vision help you read the directions. Good, it’s only 3 minutes, not 8. That could have really ruined dinner.

But when it comes to the world of simply sitting down at night in front of your television, most of us have a set up where something reads what’s on the screen to us. Whether we have a box from our cable service, or an external device made by Roku, Apple, or Amazon, we navigate through our options looking for something to watch. Even if you broadly subscribe to as much tV as you seemingly can consume, there still is only a portion of it that is actually catered to your needs. What I mean is, very few companies bother to bridge the gap with audio description the same way they do with closed captioning.

Most programs have closed captioning, even those live programs, like awards shows or the nightly news. But, very few bother to hire anyone to do live audio description, meaning that when any of those programs cuts to footage, we really only air the audio. And those of us who watch the news know that plenty of times, security camera footage is shown without any audio. To this day, I can assemble what I think happened on January 6th, but I’ve never heard that footage described with audio description. Even in the many recent committee hearings, there was no audio description, limiting what information was made available to those who can’t see or are visually impaired.

But what happens even more egregiously across the platforms is the general lack of care regarding the desire to make sure the highest percentage of their content is audio described. And, regardless of which service you prefer, they are all guilty of this on some level. Every single streaming service currently offers titles that have recorded audio description, existing tracks, yet they have not bothered to make sure that even the maximum amount of titles on their service are actually accessible to their blind and visually impaired users. Recently, Disney Plus has been importing some of the R rated FOX titles like the Deadpool films and the Logan movie, but did so without their audio description. For a service that essentially does not have “library” titles that they acquire from competing sources, these should all be tracks they own themselves and have the rights to. Disney providing audio description to Disney should involve no cutting of red tape.

Technically, the strongest service in the market is Apple Plus, because they only have original content, brand new, and created just for the streaming service. From its conception, Apple Plus made a commitment to audio description, and has stuck with that. Truthfully, most original programs that are created for a specific service now appear with audio description.

But what about the thousands of titles from the past years that did not originate on a service? Why does a film have audio description when its on one service, but then not on another? Case in point, why does The Bob’s Burgers Movie have audio description on the Warner Bros. Owned HBO MAX, but not the Disney backed Hulu service that also houses all seasons of the TV show?

It’s these choices that lead to selective censorship. Someone within each of these organizations is making choices about the titles to offer audio description for, and that means there are titles consistently being left by the wayside. Amazon, which offers films to its Prime subscribers, as well as films available for purchase is the most baffling offender, as they sometimes offer audio description on a title should you choose to purchase it digitally, but not just if you were a subscriber. But that same title has closed captioning, which means they acknowledge the need to meet accessibility requirements, just not for the blind community.

If you check out the audio description project (adp.acb.org), they do a good job of maintaining a list of films that have audio description. Anytime you see a title that has it on one service but not another, that’s a choice someone made to not make that title accessible. If the track exists, there is no solid reason why something that is simply an accessibility tool for blind and visually impaired audiences shouldn’t be transferred with the title no matter where you watch your films, be it streaming or cable.

What we have is a system similar to going to a library and asking for a list of books that are accessible to you. Then you notice several titles missing, and you know them to be in circulation, and your further inquiries lead to an answer that “Yes, we do have that title, but it is not accessible to you.” If that happened more to people, if those without disabilities were randomly restricted from things that other people were able to fully enjoy, I’m sure someone would have passed legislation. But because it is happening to a disabled minority, no thought is being given to why a certain service won’t offer audio description to a title.

And the answer could quite literally come down to someone thinking that title isn’t important enough in their own personal opinion, or that the title represents values they don’t share and therefore would try to limit its audience, as really the title came as part of a package deal. Whatever it is, choices are being made with zero transparency, and no discernible good reason to do so.

Going back to the Bob’s Burgers Movie for a minute, there actually is no good reason for that title to not have audio description on Hulu. I can’t imagine a contractual restriction that would keep that film from having something that is just simply accessibility off a service that is part of the “Disney Bundle” and is also the home streaming service for the actual TV show. Yet, somehow, HBo MAX was able to acquire the audio description.

This is like the latest news I found out when encountering Hulu’s hosting of the FX original The old Man, a show with a 7 episode 1st season that has already finished its run, yet Hulu only offers audio description for the first two episodes, when all seven have audio description recorded. What was the purpose of FX bothering to record accessibility if they don’t plan on using it?Am I really supposed to believe that there is so much red tape between Disney owned FX and Disney owned Hulu that prevented them from acquiring the final five episodes? Or, is this just an example of not caring?

Our world is changing constantly, and more and more companies are making diversity and inclusion initiatives, which sound great, but in the most basic of practices seem non existent. When blind and visually impaired audiences don’t even come close to having the same level of accessibility of deaf and hearing impaired audiences, where is the equity? We are limited to only the percentage of offerings with audio description, yet we are charged the same as any other. Could you imagine if the deaf audiences were also going through selective censorship? If they were having to hop streaming services just to get closed captioning?

I know many people are impressed by the offering of Spectrum Access, because it brings more audio description to those titles. But the hard truth is, Spectrum Access shouldn’t need to exist. There isn’t a Spectrum Access equivalent for the deaf and hard of hearing, and I don’t now why we as a population are consistently OK with being treated as less than even within the disabled community. Spectrum Access is still censorship. It’s still a predetermined list of titles. It’s not every title across all the channels with audio description ever recorded, it’s just a preselected list. If something your interested in didn’t make the cut, you’ll never know why.

Networks and cable channels should be required to integrate audio description on a regular basis. If the audio description exists for a title, it should follow that title anywhere. And, whoever picks up that title is required to air/offer that audio description. We shouldn’t be in some strange consumer warfare where we are chasing titles across streaming services and cable channels, comparing what we’re offered against what another blind individual is offered based on their ability to pay for services. Sadly, we can’t just trade audio description when we’re not using it like baseball cards. We have to put our faith in the services we give money to, and right now, those services do not care about us.

Right now, it is someone’s job to acquire and maintain accessibility, and based on a running list of titles with accessibility, quite frequently the audio description doesn’t make it from service to service. Sometimes, it never even makes it off the DVD/Blu Ray.

And that’s only addressing already recorded audio description, and not the thousands, likely millions of hours of television (including TV shows) that have never had audio description, and very likely never will, unless Congress makes the change. Will blind and visually impaired individuals ever get the right to equal accessibility, or are we destined to live forever in a world where the service we subscribe to dictates what we’re supposed to be watching, and tries to steer us away from other titles by denying us existing accessibility, or never bothering to record it at all?

I hate censorship, and the idea that someone I’ve never met is constantly making choices for me, is not something I can abide. This dude does not abide.

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