A Voice Is Worth A Thousand Pictures
By Ani Mercedes (KTQ intern, fall '12).
How many films have you watched in your lifetime? 100? 1,000? 10,000? More importantly, how many did you watch with your eyes closed?
About 1 in every 30 Americans have no choice but to watch films without clear images because they are blind or visually impaired. However, there is a way for the approximately 11 million Americans who are blind or visually impaired to enjoy a rich film experience. Through the “21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act,” the United States Congress is requiring video programming to utilize more audio description.
Audio description is like a narrator telling a story. It is an audio commentary that describes any visual cues important for following a story that are not clearly conveyed through sound. For example, if a character pulls out a knife, the audio description would say, “she pulls out a knife.”
Kartemquin Films will be releasing its first audio described DVD this January with As Goes Janesville. Matt Lauterbach, Kartemquin’s Post-Production Manager, and a trained audio describer, commented on including the track: “We decided to include it because it's already been created and paid for by PBS. It was easy to do. I hope other documentary filmmakers realize that they can request an audio description track from their broadcaster and include it on the DVD release of their film -- even if self-distributed. I hope that soon audio description won't be a foreign concept to filmmakers and viewers.”
You can experience audio description with the clip from the film below, which is first played with the original audio and then with audio description. Although the spectrum of blindness and visual impairment varies greatly—from seeing shadows and figures to loosing one’s visual field—the clip below simulates visual impairment by not including video.
Although audio description services in the United States have been made selectively available since the 1980s—notably by WGBH (Boston’s public broadcasting station)—it was not until 2010, twenty years after the landmark American With Disabilities Act, that federal legislation extensively required audio description, and other accessibility services. The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act requires access for people who are blind or visually impaired to practically all communication, from film and DVDs, to smart phone web browsing, to an average of four hours of audio described programming per week on national broadcast networks, including ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox.
While signing the bill into law on October 8, 2010, President Obama stated, “The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act will make it easier for people who are deaf, blind or live with a visual impairment to do what many of us take for granted -- from navigating a TV or DVD menu to sending an email on a smart phone. It sets new standards so that Americans with disabilities can take advantage of the technology our economy depends on.”
In October of 2013 the FCC (Federal Communications Commissions) will begin reviewing any complaints against media organizations that have not provided adequate access. Measures to improve accessibility are already being implemented. In the state of Illinois all 460 AMC (American Multi-Cinema) Theaters will be providing personal captioning services and audio description technology for all listed showings by 2014. Marcia Trawinski, a Chicago-area activist for accessibility rights who is herself legally blind, was instrumental in getting the AMC Theaters to commit to providing those services. She emphasizes how rare audio description is and that she will not purchase a DVD if it is not audio described.
“Not having audio description is confusing, unclear, and some stories don’t even make sense. A lot of scenes are done without dialogue. There may be people huffing and puffing or breathing. But I don’t know what’s happening. By getting the description I am able to enjoy the experience the way the rest of you do, laugh at the same time as everyone else, and not have to constantly ask and elbow poke someone to ask about what’s happening. I personally won’t go to a movie or buy a DVD if it’s not audio described. It completes the movie experience. There’s a wonderful scene in first Indian Jones movie where he’s explaining something to someone and uses the phrase ‘it is so long’ and he shows him with his hands. The description interjects and says ‘fourteen inches’, otherwise he says ‘so long’ but that doesn’t tell me anything. They were able to add that detail. There it was. I had it. It’s the kind of thing you take for granted.”
Kartemquin hopes to continue releasing DVDs with audio description, both because doing so aligns with our mission to include diversity—including disability—within our community, but also because physical barriers should not be barriers to cultural experiences. Other filmmakers may utilize the resources below to make their own audio described tracks for their films. Readers may also refer to the list below for resources to movie theaters and films that provide audio description.
Although these are steps towards improving access, there is still much more that can be done to increase the amount of audio described experiences, particularly films. The audio described DVD release of As Goes Janesville is Kartemquin’s first step towards making our stories accessible to a broader audience. Soon the eight-year-old girl who was born blind will be able to laugh at the same time as her friends as they watch a movie at her slumber party, the aging grandfather loosing his sight will be able to experience his favorite film with his grandchildren, and we hope audio description continues to progress and expand access to a lifetime of film experiences.
Resources for Filmmakers
• How to make your own audio commentary, which may also be used for audio description: http://at.blogs.wm.edu/do-it-yourself-audio-film-commentary/
• Audio Description Association: http://www.audiodescribe.com/
• DVS: national service that makes television programs, feature films, home videos, and other visual media accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired. DVS was launched nationally in 1990 by the WGBH Educational Foundation and is part of the Media Access Group at WGBH, http://ncam.wgbh.org/mopix/
Resources for Blind or Visually Impaired
• A list of the latest films playing in theatres with description is available here:
• List of audio described films are available at these two links:
Resources for Filmmakers & Blind or Visually Impaired
• WBU Audio Description Toolkit, includes background on audio description and guidelines for audio description: http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&ved=0CEEQ...
Sign up for the Kartemquin newsletter
Get film updates and special deals
With a noted tradition of nurturing emerging talent and acting as a leading voice for independent media, Kartemquin is building on more than 50 years of history as Chicago’s documentary powerhouse.
Kartemquin is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization. Guidestar
© 2017 Kartemquin Educational Films
Sign up for the Kartemquin newsletter
Get film updates and special deals