Let’s talk about representation. We live in an exhilarating time where many creators and brands are celebrating inclusivity and diversity. What a wonderful opportunity to shine a light on accessibility!
Visual Mediums, such as film, TV, theater and galleries, are slowly increasing their authentic representation of people with disabilities. In a November 2019 report, it was revealed that the number of TV series regulars with disabilities has risen to 3.1% from 2018’s 2.1%. Actors with disabilities cast in those roles is now up 20% from 5% in 2016.
This upward trend of disability representation is promising, however several of these programs are still inaccessible to people with visually impairments. There’s a very simple solution – Audio Description!
It seems like every week there’s a new binge-worthy show that people are gushing about. Sadly, many people are excluded from enjoying the new hit show simply because they do not have the means to access it.
This has defined the experience for people with visual impairments since the introduction of film and television. We’ve been watching TV since the late 1920s but the SAP feature for TV became available decades later in the 1980s. SAP, or Second Audio Program, provides narration for the visually impaired. For the most part, SAP was only available for primetime TV. Even though the FCC expanded SAP’s programming in 2016, the feature is only available on 9 networks and is still quite limited.
Apps and streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have since disrupted the film and television industry and become a popular way to watch content. But did these streaming services also take the necessary steps to provide accessible formats? Unfortunately, not as quickly as we hoped. Audio Description in the streaming world has only been available since Netflix popularized it in 2015 (and only after they faced a lawsuit).
Hulu was extremely late to the party. In October 2018, they reached a settlement with the American Council of the Blind and the Bay State Council of the Blind to improve the accessibility of their service for people with visual disabilities. At that point, they were not providing any content with Audio Description. There’s been some improvement since 2018, but Audio Description is still not available for every program – and sometimes only for select seasons.
As for other streaming and apps, it’s been hit or miss. Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Disney+ have only recently committed to providing Audio Description. HBO’s app is behind as well. Regrettably, there is no law stating that streaming or cable services must provide Audio Description. Therefore, the choice is left up to the individual companies. And unfortunately, it usually takes a lawsuit (like Netflix’s) for a company to finally commit to including accessible features. For a full list of content streaming services with Audio Description, click here.
With the growing demand for movies and television series, competition for ratings and viewership is fierce. Streaming services that prioritize accessibility will increase their potential audience. According to the World Health Organization, about 285 million people in the world have a visual impairment, 39 million of which are blind. That’s a significant population of potential viewers. Furthermore, Audio Description provides more options for viewers looking to multi-task (and catch up on Season 3 of “Ozark” before somebody spoils it).
Live events provide even more roadblocks for Audio Description. Fortunately, many of these formats have become more accessible in recent years. The only problem? Audio Description is not as widely available as we would like it to be. People with visual impairments are an integral part of every community and, therefore, deserve to have access to a multitude of options for their patronage.
Audio Description is an art in and of itself! Describers must intrinsically understand how to tell stories and how audiences experience them. It is critical to capture the nuances and visual cues and the describer must be succinct to get the full story across quickly and keep pace with the flow.
For film, Audio Description is a relatively new technology. Starting only as recently as 1988, film production companies provided an audio described version of their movies when the VHS or DVD was released. This was obviously not an adequate solution because people with visual impairments would have to wait months to see the latest films.
Going digital has helped. Digital files allow production companies to streamline the process of adding accessible elements. Audio Descriptions can now be encoded into the digital file -- also more cost effective! Prior to this, it was around $12,000 to install the Audio Description technology. This limited the selection of available showtimes at movie theaters.
Now, viewers can attend virtually any showtime and use an accessibility device. Companies like Sony invented Closed Captioning Glasses and Audio Description Devices that are now available in many movie theaters. Regal was the first company to implement these changes, followed by Cinemark, Alamo Drafthouse and AMC. Unfortunately, these helpful devices are still not available in every theater (even though it became a requirement in 2018). Luckily, it’s as simple as searching Fandango to see if there are Audio Description capabilities at the theater.
As for older movies? There is a giant backlog of films that do not yet have Audio Description (a great opportunity for a budding screenwriter!).
For live shows or concerts, the venue must employ an audio describer to communicate via earpiece. It is essential for the description to be live because anything can happen during a live show!
Unfortunately, smaller venues may not have the budget or technology for this and will potentially miss out on patrons with visual impairments. A simple remedy? Hire an audio describer that can sit next to the patron and narrate the show live. Another alternative is to allow the patron to sit in on a dress rehearsal or run-through so that a stage manager or director’s assistant can describe the action.
Several organizations like Deaf West Theatre incorporate ASL into the staging of their shows so that it is a part of the entire process. We hope that future companies will find a way to make Audio Description an intrinsic part of the process.
Audio guides for galleries and museums have been around for a while. Luckily, it was a logical step on the path to developing Audio Description devices. There is a powerful feeling that is experienced simply when standing in a gallery or museum. For that reason, Audio Description often isn’t enough to truly experience an installation. That’s why some galleries and museums, like the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Prague, went the extra mile to include sensory or tactile tours to enhance the experience.
With COVID restrictions, many galleries and museums are offering virtual tours and online exhibits. Shockingly, many do not have Audio Description! This is a missed opportunity. If museums and galleries make the move to create virtual experiences, they must also prioritize the necessary accessibility features so everyone can enjoy them. Furthermore, it expands the global reach of that curation’s cultural significance. Many people are unable to travel to the world’s vast spread of museums and galleries. Therefore, this is a perfect chance to share the knowledge and beauty with an audience base that would have otherwise been unable to access it.
Everyone should be able to access art in its full glory and at its peak moment of relevance. Advancements in Audio Description technology have opened the door to audience members with visual impairments. With the expansion of our virtual world, we have an opportunity to ensure that people with disabilities will never again be excluded from experiencing the arts.
Interested in learning more about how the experts at Scribely can help you meet your accessibility goals? Contact us today for more information!