Like most Americans, I watch a lot of TV, a bit less now than when I was a kid. But, for most of my life, I always hoped someone in my family or circle of friends might watch with me, so I could ask, “What just happened?”
I have been blind since I was an infant. And, TV is of course, “television,” with an emphasis on the vision. As it turned out, I often ended up watching TV – especially as a kid – by myself. So, much of the time, I only had a vague and often wrong notion of what happened. Cartoons were especially hard to “watch” since so much of the story and humor is visual.
But I also gravitated to some of the great dialog-heavy shows like MASH, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and All in the Family. I later came to appreciate pretty much every show produced by Aaron Sorkin – Sports Night, West Wing, Studio 60 – because the dialog told the story and even the mood music was just amazingly poignant. Sure, I missed important details, but those shows featured snappy dialog which usually carried the plot.
I am not sure when I first heard about something called “audio description,” but wow, did it open a whole new world for me and countless others. Audio description is an audio-narrated description of the key visual elements in a television program or movie. These descriptions are inserted into natural pauses in the program’s dialog. The concept is neatly summed up by Joel Snyder (a longtime description champion and trainer) in the title of his book: “The Visual Made Verbal.” A 2010 law made audio description a requirement for several hours of programming on top TV networks. You can find out more at https://www.acb.org/audio-description-project. Your TV program guide might list programs with description, so if you want to try it, you’ll need to turn on something called the SAP or sometimes its labeled Spanish< channel under audio settings.
One of the first movies with audio description I remember watching was 101 Dalmatians. We had watched the movie with my daughters (who are sighted) several times (parents know what I mean by several times), but when I watched with audio description, I was blown away by all the details I missed (even with enthusiastic children trying to explain things to their dad). Check out the beginning of the movie when the Dalmatian named Pongo does all sorts of funny things. It is priceless, and also completely unavailable if you’re not able to see it.
“My daughter did her best though. When I asked the “What just happened?” question, she sweetly told me “A horse is running.” That much I knew from the galloping, but lost on me was the “why.””
I want to thank my parents, brothers, friends, wife, and daughters for the years of work they did to provide descriptions of countless TV shows and movies. It is funny, though, how people focus on different aspects of the show they are describing. One friend loved filmmaking so he shared a lot of detail about lighting choices and imagery. I just wanted to know who the hell got shot. My wife, who is an excellent describer, has one fatal flaw: she hates the violent scenes in shows. One of my favorite movies is Unforgiven, yet, some scenes remain a mystery because my wife refuses to describe them (and I don’t have an audio description of that movie).
Another favorite movie moment was seeing “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” with my six-year-old daughter. That movie has almost no dialog, so it was difficult to sit through. My daughter did her best though. When I asked the “What just happened?” question, she sweetly told me “A horse is running.” That much I knew from the galloping, but lost on me was the “why.”
Audio description has proven to be both a delightful way to access visual content and an enhancement to entertainment for everyone. My family now gets to enjoy shows on their own terms (not that they minded describing to me, but, as my sighted friends likely understand, providing description likely takes a bit of their focus away from the program). Now, they also get another benefit – thanks to audio description they can take their eyes off the screen and still follow the show. One caution, because the audio description has to fit within the gaps in a program’s dialog, sometimes it can be tricky to inform without pre-empting. My daughter learned this firsthand when she showed our videotape of the movie Mighty Ducks to some friends who noted that the audio description describing the goal preceded its occurrence. Really, it’s a Disney movie, there couldn’t have been much doubt about the outcome.
Unfortunately, not all programs or movies are described. As I noted earlier, only a limited number of TV programs are described and movies are not required to be described (though most major studio films are now available with description). Thankfully, because of great legal advocacy, both television receivers and movie theaters now need to provide a method to access the audio description content.
The path to audio description has been challenging. I remember a Congressional staffer calling me at home in the early 90s to tell me that her boss couldn’t get a requirement put in legislation for audio description of television shows. Later, a federal court struck down a limited description requirement for television programs put in place by the Federal Communications Commission. Some have even argued that audio description violates protections for free speech because it is a form of compelled speech. This is malarkey, as my wife loves to say. When the genie in Aladdin turns the monkey Abu into various different animals and other things, the intent of the visuals is quite clear and verbally telling a blind person what animals and images are on the screen is not compelled speech. Fortunately, audio description is becoming more commonplace with platforms like Netflix and Amazon offering many described programs.
I am delighted that many Aira Explorers have asked agents to describe programs and plays.
I’d love to hear your stories about the value of audio description, whether included in a show, movie, or play, provided by a friend or family member, or by one of our great Aira agents.
I offer this final thought; when someone asks “What just happened?” remember, as a blind friend liked to say: “a picture may be worth a thousand words, but I don’t necessarily want to hear all of them.”