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Audio Description: Accessory Or Accessibility?

Anyone who watches much television or goes to many movies knows that the old technique of starting the plot at the beginning and telling the story straight through to the end is currently out of favor. Today the plot advances by jumping from scene to scene and story line to story line; so, unless one is already familiar with the actors' voices, the program format or the plot, the narrative is difficult to follow by sound alone. It is certainly helpful to watch such programs or films with someone who can identify the characters and fill in with explanations of inaudible actions. For those who enjoy such leisure-time activities and don't usually have someone to provide occasional explanations, audio description is certainly a convenience. In case you have never run into this invention of contemporary entertainment, audio description can be broadcast or recorded as part of a program or movie's audio, or it can be supplied live by a person at an actual performance. The live description service is usually available using special earphones in a theater, and only certain performances are described. Those who supply such services are eager to find new opportunities for providing them in their communities. And, not surprisingly, those who provide descriptive video for television and films are also eager to find the funding to expand the number of movies and programs for which audio description is available. We might do well to consider what the effect on the lives of blind people the increased availability of audio description is likely to have. This is, in fact, what the Metro Chapter of the NFB of Minnesota did, and the answer was disquieting. Peggy Chong, who was President of the chapter at the time, wrote an article that reported on the experience. It appeared in the Fall, 1997, issue of the "Minnesota Bulletin," the publication of the NFB of Minnesota. This is what she said.

One of the people who describes plays at many theaters in the Twin Cities came to the June meeting of the Metro Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota to tell us what she does and outline her hopes for the future of her business. She began her presentation with the statement that she had heard that the NFB was opposed to audio description. We told her this was not true but that it was not a high priority for us. We pointed out that the Federation had made it possible financially for the most recent inaugural ceremonies of President Clinton to have audio description. We certainly do believe there is some value in audio description of events, plays, and movies, or we would not have put money into this project. A number of members pointed out that they enjoyed descriptive video, and several of us said we had a DVS movie or two in our collections. However, the lack of audio description does not prevent us from enjoying other videos or stop us from going to the theater with friends.

Our guest tried to get us to understand what we were missing when we did not have an audio describer and how much enhanced our lives would be if audio description were a regular part of them. At one point she asked if everyone knew what our meeting room looked like. She went on to describe the room, the ceiling and the seats. She paused to ask if there were other things that were important to know about the room. Someone sang out, "The room was free." I don't think she wanted to hear that. I think she only wanted us to be grateful for her description of the room. She went on to tell us of the many other activities that blind people would benefit from if a person were present to describe what was going on.

One of her jobs was to describe a sixtieth birthday party for a blind person and two blind guests. Someone asked how she decided what should be described, especially when she is describing parties, where there is no dress rehearsal for her to observe. She replied that she talks first to the people for whom she is doing the description: what are their interests, who is important to them? Then, at the event, she makes a point to get to know the names of as many people as possible at the event so that she can give accurate descriptions of who is leaving early, for example. In other words, she goes around to folks and makes it known that she is there to interpret for the blind guests who do not know what is going on.

One chapter member told the group about a graduation ceremony he had attended. At one point a dog walked across the stage with the picture of the president of the college on his back. Everyone began to chuckle. A stranger sitting beside our member leaned over to describe the scene quietly, and they laughed together. In addition to informing him about the incident, this impromptu action provided an opportunity for him to get to know the stranger better.

Unfortunately our guest speaker misunderstood the point of the anecdote. She said that it was one more example of a situation in which the college should have provided an audio describer. Otherwise our blind member might have missed this important moment. The point was that, despite the lack of any professional audio description service, he had not missed the moment. Because he did not have an audio describer talking to him through earphones, he had an opportunity to interact with others at the event. This NFB member has had some adjustment-to-blindness training and knew there were ways to find out why the audience was laughing. He was not embarrassed or ashamed of his blindness. I am sure there were a few sighted people that day who, for a variety of reasons, missed this moment and also had to ask their neighbors what had happened.

At one point our speaker actually equated her job to that of an interpreter for the deaf. We strongly said that we did not view her job as particularly specialized or essential. Family and friends have often described scenery, events, activities, and much more to us without any training and have provided more than adequate information. Moreover, some people just love to talk and describe things in detail without being prompted. She was not happy to be reminded of this truth either.

As Steve Jacobson was trying to explain a point to her and ask a question, she began angrily packing her bag instead of listening to him. She did not describe her activity. But we could tell from the sound what she was doing. Our speaker left in a huff. As she was going out the door, she shouted back over her shoulder that we would never understand and that all the bad things that people said about the NFB were true. That was an unfortunate way to have the discussion end, but since the meeting I have given a good deal more thought to audio description than I ever expected to. Our speaker had backhandedly raised issues that disturb me. I fear she was arguing that audio description is an accessibility issue.

Today we certainly hear comments to the effect that theaters should offer audio description as a means of providing access to the blind. Increasingly we see audio description being used to promote particular plays and theaters. Some theaters have even designated special days for blind people to attend a play because that is when the interpreter will be on hand. Movie theaters and playhouses across America and throughout the world have always been accessible to blind patrons. Of course we have sometimes asked a companion or others attending the performance to describe what has just happened, but this has not stopped us from enjoying the play. Countless times sighted playgoers have also asked their companions to explain what just happened. No one has thrown them out of the theater for asking. Could it be that the reason blind people are not at many performances is that we do not yet have the jobs to pay for the tickets? Adding in the cost of audio description to the tickets will not help to bring in blind patrons.

No, audio description is an accessory issue. It is not unlike a CD player in your car stereo. The absence of a CD player in the car does not impede the operation of the car. Nor does it stop you from enjoying the stereo system. It just means that, on any given trip, you may not hear your favorite recording. It is not a big step from the idea that audio interpreters are a necessary accommodation, important to one's understanding and appreciation of a play, to the conviction that audio interpreters are equally necessary for a blind person to supervise employees. Actually, if a blind person believes that he or she needs an interpreter, then the person's real need is adjustment-to-blindness training.

Moreover, anyone with so little self-confidence won't have that or any job very long. Such thinking places a far greater value on vision as a technique for learning about the world than any other technique. Those who are successful in life, both blind and sighted, know that there are many ways, other than seeing, to learn and enjoy what life has to offer.

Several years ago a TV show titled "Mr. Sunshine" had as its main character a blind professor. In one episode Mr. Sunshine went dancing and fell off the dance floor. Not long after the episode aired, a couple in California were denied entrance to a dance club because the manager felt that they might fall off the dance floor. Real life can, and very frequently does, imitate art. Blind people who have successfully completed adjustment-to-blindness training do not fret about what they cannot see. Our attention is focused on getting the most out of life by using the many skills and problem-solving techniques we learned during training and continue to build upon. Once we have confidence and self-respect, we realize that sighted people get lost, request help in the grocery store, ask directions to the bathroom in a concert hall, and seek explanations when they miss action, plot, or dialog at a play.

Does audio description result in inclusion, or will it gradually separate blind people from the rest of the world? If we have to take a special interpreter to a family celebration, aren't we telling others that our needs are too complex for family members to converse with us or fill us in on the activity without the intervention of a specially trained interpreter? Should tax dollars be used for audio description? In these days of shrinking public dollars, surely we have many more important issues to work on. Many of our problems are the same as those of other sectors of the public-transportation, unemployment, information access, literacy, and vanishing state and federal programs designed to meet specific needs.

We have never said that audio description is a bad thing as it currently stands. Our concern is that it be kept in perspective. There are many negative repercussions of considering audio description an accessibility issue. It is our responsibility to do as much as we can for ourselves and not to grab everything we can for free. We are far better off when we ask for assistance only when we need it.

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