often I feel like I’m stuck on a soapbox, having to consistently remind large multi-billion dollar corporations that accessibility isn’t a perk. It’s not something that I’m requesting, like going to a hairstylist and asking for highlights. I’m not upgrading to Uber XL for more comfort. When I or anyone else in the blind and visually impaired community talk to you about audio description, we are talking to you about accessibility. Audio Description, or Descriptive Audio (if you prefer), is an accessibility tool. It’s not something people just use for fun. It’s not like I’m calling you and asking for directors commentary. I’m asking for a track that is specifically made by a company whose job it is to watch a film, write a script designed to bridge the visual gap in movies and television, and then have someone narrate that script so an audience that cannot see visual cues, special effects, jump scares, character entrances, non-verbal clues in mysteries, animals that can’t speak, and sometimes even right down to facial expressions, what someone is wearing, what their skin color is, their age, or any multitude of things that a sighted audience takes for granted every time they turn on a television or go to a movie theatre.
I know this, because not too long ago, I was on the other side of this, as a sighted person who just walked in and took everything for granted. I got to appreciate great cinematographers, laugh at bad visual effects, be in awe of things like 3D when used on the big screen, and even be able to see a foreign language title because i could read the subtitles.
Now that I’m blind, I now know that the world that has been created for blind and visually impaired moviegoers and television fanatics is deeply, and disturbingly, deficient. On TV, networks are required to air a certain amount of programming with audio description each week. But rather than overcommit, or accidentally air more audio description than necessary, the networks seem to all apply some form of rolling/rotating audio description, where your show may or may not have audio description that week, or the network might have selected a different show. Because blind people are just expected to be happy with their lot in life, so sporadic audio description, especially in linear storytelling, makes sense to those who make these choices for the networks.
At the streaming services, each major streamer says they have a commitment to audio description, and for the most part, they do. What that means, is that for their original product, as much as possible, each streamer will offer English audio description. now, there are caveats there. Hulu really likes to pretend as if FX On Hulu is some alien thing that is removed from their purview, like it’s not the same as a hulu original despite that show being only available on hulu, premiering on hulu, and that fX is owned by Disney, which is currently a 2/3rds majority owner of Hulu (as they also have Fox’s 1/3rd. Share). Netflix, which has been around the longest in this game, has international titles, which may or may not have English Audio Description. A breakout like Squid Game actually took months before it was accessible to a blind and visually impaired audience. And over at Paramount Plus, they have yet to import existing audio description for any of Showtime’s programming. For Amazon, they like to hire humans for their originals, but frequently use the much cheaper text-to-speech format of audio description for some catalog titles it creates its own tracks for, creating a rather inferior product.
The thing is, audio description is not simply just dubbing. Just like there is a difference between subtitles, and closed captioning. Simply providing a dubbed audio track for a foreign language title does not give us any of the visual aspects that we need in order to survive a film. it just means we hear English words. I still would miss out on quite a lot with just dubbed audio tracks. It is actually accessibility, and accessibility matters.
When your service only has a percentage of your service that is accessible to me, yet i and the rest of the blind and visual impaired community are paying the same as the sighted who can access everything, it helps to try and expand your number of accessible titles to the largest possible percentage possible. What isn’t helpful are when catalog titles jump services, but don’t Cary their audio description tracks. Most major Hollywood studios have been producing audio description for all of their films for years, for theatrical release. Those same tracks should be attached to ever successive release, whether it be DVD or streaming, as the content creators should want the best representation of their work. When I have to watch something without audio description, it very much changes how I enjoy a film.
There is a great resource for my community, The Audio Description Project, but in a perfect world, we wouldn’t need something that tells us where each film can be watched with audio description. We, like anyone else, would just turn on what we needed to watch, and would ahve the accessibility required. It is actually that simple. The deaf community has far greater access to closed captioned titles than we do audio described. i know, because i frequently see titles listed as not having audio description, but they have English CC. Even paramount Plus, who could not be bothered to import the audio description for Showtime, imported the closed captioning.
Today, I had an experience with Netflix I’d rather not repeat. I’ve been having similar experiences with Paramount Plus, who has the worst customer service in the streaming game, and hulu, who are never helpful when it comes to audio description. Netflix typically at least makes me feel heard, but today, i was not. Today, the Alejandro Gonzalez innaritu film Bardo was released, and despite the fact that it is accessible to deaf people in a few different languages, the only available audio tracks are Spanis and Spanish Audio Description. for a title seeking awards consideration, i was expecting more.
Recently, Netflix released All Quiet On The Western Front, which had audio description in English, as well as a few other languages. That title is Germany’s entry for the international Feature Oscar race. I decided to call Netflix and put my name down as someone that wanted an English Audio Description track, and i believed that a film from the Oscar winning director of The Revenant and Birdman warranted such consideration. My agent took this note, and then provided me a rather ableist description of how my interest was logged, and perhaps if enough people called in, someone at Netflix’s marketing would notice, and let the producers know, and that they might decide to make the track.
I’m pretty aware all I was doing was just starting that work, by putting my name down as someone who wanted it, but for him to explain how basically if i was lucky enough to crowdsource my accessibility, perhaps someone would listen, was offensive. I don’t think these services are educating their customer service agents about what audio description is (I know, from having had to explain it far too many times), so for this guy to explain it from his perspective was condescending. I stopped him to let him know how what he said was offensive, and compared it to telling a wheelchair bound patron that if enough wheelchair bound people wanted to get in the building, they might consider building a ramp. instead of doing his job and just listening, as a customer service agent, I was cut off, and was told that he needed to leave the conversation and it could not continue further, or whatever he was saying as he was talking over me. I was not yelling at him. We were not in a fight. I simply was trying to explain to him that perhaps it’s not the best practice to explain how I need to crowdsource my audio description, even if that is how Netflix operates.
I get it. I’m an inconvenience to the world now that I’m blind. i feel that every single day. i feel it when I can’t drive myself somewhere, and end up getting a ride. I feel that whenever someone wants to show me something, like a picture. if eel that every time someone is asking for help and I know I could fix this thing if I could just see. I feel it when things aren’t accessible, when my screen reader fails me, when my apps that are supposed to show me things don’t read everything I need. I’m reminded on a daily basis that this world does not want, is not built for, and is inconvenienced by blind people.
however, i’m here. And I’m not going away. I love film. i love television. I’ve loved it as long as I can remember. it has defined who I am, and I’m not going anywhere. Despite every single brick wall that streaming services and content providers continue to throw up, I will continue to tilt at windmills until such a time when we have the accessibility we need. it is 2022, and we are in a world where we have space tourism. But you’re telling me that I can’t watch Yellowjackets on Showtime with audio description that I know already exists, simply because I’m watching it on Paramount Plus, who has the same parent company? It’s about to be 2023, and while sighted people are running around with VR goggles, you’re telling me that I might get audio description if enough blind people call to complain?
Do you realize the Venn diagram from hell that has to happen in order for that to work? First, you take the largest number, which is Netflix subscribers. Then, throw away all subscribers who aren’t going to watch Bardo. Then, throw away the Spanish speakers who did get the audio description, as well as their original audio track. Then you’re left with non-Spanish speakers interested. now, a lot of those people will read the subtitles, so throw out those people. Then you’re left with two groups. Sighted people too lazy to read subtitles who want a dubbed track, and blind people who need audio description because it is the accessibility they seek. Of that second group, I then have to narrow it down to people willing to actually call Netflix, instead of those who just give up.
That’s how I’m getting my accessibility. My disability isn’t a change.org looking for more signatures.
So, to all of Hollywood, all of the network channels, streaming services, and people who stand between me and my accessibility, know that for every one of me, there are likely an immeasurable amount of people who just give up, and perhaps one day just cancel their subscription without ever telling you why. Accessibility matters. That’s why I’m here. It’s beyond time for these billion dollar corporations to do the right thing, and step up their commitment far beyond what they currently have. It should be a rarity when something doesn’t have audio description, not the norm.
This year, directors Steven Spielberg and sam Mendes both directed deeply personal movies about the power of cinema. I still believe in that power, even if i can no longer see the magic. I can, however, hear it, and when done right, it sounds spectacular.