On Audio Descript, in Recognition of Accessibility Week

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, we had a thing called video stores. If you didn’t want to buy a DVD, you had to go to the video store to rent your film. By the way, they were called video stores because they originally rented movies on video cassette. But that’s a different life-time ago.
In 2012, Disney began distributing the Avengers films. Around the same time, Disney began including video descript with all of their films. Someone I know saw a video descript sticker on the Avengers film and got very excited. She rented it for me. I watched about half an hour of the film; I eventually gave up—not because of the video descript, but because I didn’t think I was an Avengers fan.
Video descript, or audio descript—as it’s more commonly called—is a description track that’s inserted to help blind and visually impaired people watch film and television. The idea for this technology goes back to the 1970s, but not until the late 80s does it begin to take form, first as the Descriptive Video Service, tested on American Playhouse in 1988. In 2010, the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act was passed in the United States.
I never liked audio descript. This might seem an odd thing for a blind person to say—I just found it invasive, or something. But I never really gave it a chance—something that became clear to me the first time I watched Disney’s Frozen. I couldn’t keep the sisters straight, and I thought the talking reindeer an odd addition to the film. I had to later sort out the details with the help of my daughters. Then Netflix found its way into my life, and I began to rely on the audio descript for shows such as Brooklyn 99 and Grace and Frankie. And I have the fine people at Netflix to thank.
Erica Kram is the Accessibility Project Manager with Netflix, and she and many others have pushed hard to ensure that all of Netflix’ original programming includes audio descript. And it’s not a service just for blind and visually impaired users—people are apparently using audio descript to turn television watching into an audio book experience.
Then came COVID. We were probably two weeks into lock-down before I decided to get Disney Plus. My sister and eldest daughter had already subscribed to Disney’s new streaming service, but I was definitely a late comer.
At the end of March, my youngest daughter and I decided to rewatch the first six Star Wars films. We got to The Empire strikes Back—and, look at that, no disk in the case. We had no idea where the disk had disappeared. That’s when my daughter reminded me that Disney had all the Star Wars films in their new streaming service. We either had to buy Empire through iTunes, or join Disney’s golden horde—we joined.
I quickly learned that Disney takes accessibility as seriously as Netflix. Disney has added video descript to all of the Star Wars films—and I mean all of them, going back to The New Hope from 1977. And this doesn’t include the audio descript Disney has added to its animated films as far back as The Little Mermaid from 1989.
This week is Accessibility Week, and audio descript is an accessibility issue. And like all accessibility issues, it’s political. It may seem a small thing in a pandemic world, but it’s not for those who rely on it. And the fact that major corporations recognize the importance of accessibility speaks to a changing world. It’s not just differently abled groups who will benefit, either. Such recognition benefits everyone. Celebrating diversity in ability, ethnicity, race, gender, economic status, and in every other way helps to alter the human landscape. Join in recognizing and celebrating all the diversity around you. This is how we are changing our world.

New Fiction, “The Book Finder”

For me, walking into a book store is an odd experience. I’m in a room full of books and I can’t red any of them. Books and reading is where I live—where I have lived for most of my life, but as a blind person, access to print books has always been an issue.
This doesn’t mean I don’t like walking through book stores. I will visit with a friend—always feeling a strange expectancy as whomever I’m with reds titles and backs of books. If I buy, I mostly buy for other people. But my world of books is audio and digital, not print.
I’ve always been able to find books to read, books that take me into worlds I haven’t yet imagined, but many of my most memorable reads have come from other people—teachers, friends, and relatives. I always pay attention when someone tells me about a book. It might be something I’ve already read, but often not. And you never know how a book is going to alter the way you see the world—whether that’s a biography of Charles Darwin, a hefty Dickens novel, or a book about little people who live in holes in the ground. Every book is both mirror and lens—it shows you something of yourself while enabling you to see the world in new and interesting ways.
All of this thinking went into a story I wrote last year called “The Book Finder.” It’s a story about a mysterious woman who works in a bookstore. People talk about her, but no one seems to be able to find her by looking. If you ask at the bookstore, they will invariably shake their heads and send you to the reference desk.
Here’s the opening from “The Book Finder”:

You couldn’t always find her. If you went looking for her, you would never find her—that’s what some people said. You just had to be in the store—by accident, by chance, or just because.
Most people who claimed to have met her didn’t remember her clearly. They would frown, trying to recall.
“I was in there … a Tuesday, I think,” they would say, vaguely. “But I didn’t know what I was looking for. Then she came over and just started asking me what I liked to read. I told her … and she handed me a book.”
The stories went like that. Some said it was an older woman—one was convinced it was a man. But most said it was a girl, or a young woman, smiling, inquiring, and asking what you liked to read.
And maybe that was it. You couldn’t go into the little shop intentionally. You couldn’t walk in and ask for her. If you did, the person behind the counter would say something vague in response: ”Oh, you must mean Sarah (or Sally, or Jane). She’s not here today, but if you go to the reference desk, someone can help you.”

I want to thank the editors of The Evening Street Review for publishing “The Book Finder” in their summer, 2020 issue. You can purchase a copy of the journal at the following address:
The Evening Street Review.
The summer issue is loaded with poetry, short stories, and nonfiction. Remember, purchasing a copy of the magazine helps such journals to continue bringing us stories that will live with us for years to come, and perhaps, even change the way we see the world.

Writing Blind

I recently had an essay published in Wanderlust Journal—a piece called “Traveling Blind.” After I have a piece accepted by a journal, I mostly forget about it—at least it drops off my work radar. However, I went to the website and reread the piece. A question occurred to me. Why did I write it?
Everything I write is something I’ve experienced in some way—that includes fiction. If I’m to be authentic in writing about my life in the form of personal essays or memoir, then I have to write about being blind. The reality is that I don’t think about it much of the time. I just live my life—I clean my house, I do my work, I walk, I read. Even if I’m standing in an aisle of the grocery store and looking for salad dressing, I don’t think to myself, I can’t see, and this makes this whole thing hard. Instead, I think, this bottle is the shape of the salad dressing I usually buy, so into my basket it goes. I will sometimes ask people for help, but not always.
The point is that if I’m going to write about my experience as a blind person, then I need to think about it—weird as that may sound. It occurred to me one day—if I could see, I would just be another white guy over fifty. Being blind reclassifies me, puts me in a category of difference—at least according to the world. Do I think about being blind as I’m writing every day? NO.
I recently wrote a story about a mysterious young woman who has an uncanny ability to know which books would be best suited for people she meets in a book store. I wasn’t thinking about being blind when I wrote that story. The story is told from the point of view of the young woman: she’s a student, and she’s meeting an acquaintance for coffee, someone she knew in junior high (middle school to the rest of the world). That’s what I had to think about—being a young person, a young woman, who loves books, and doesn’t quite know how to deal with this person from her past. Writing such a character is tricky. I’m not a young woman, but I love books, and I usually have complicated responses to people from my past.
Perhaps the point here is that writing is always something of a paradox: it’s important to write what one knows, but one has to step outside of the experience to write about it at all. Think about building a fence or painting a painting. You have to stand back and see it coming together as a whole. The same is true for me as I try to write my experiences. And even as I’m writing about what the world defines as a disability, I have to see it from the outside to communicate the experience. That experience is always intensely personal, so that’s how it gets written. The question then becomes, how do you write something intensely personal without feeling as though you’re standing naked on a bus? That’s maybe a post for another day.

A New Piece, Traveling Blind

By nature, I’m mostly a hobbit. However, like Bilbo Baggins, I do travel, sometimes more than I want. And I mostly travel alone, which means I rely on the kindness and assistance of people who work for airlines and in airports. And these people are amazing—helpful, good natured, efficient, and friendly. I couldn’t travel the way I do without them.
“Traveling Blind” is a nonfiction piece about getting there—where ever that is. I hope you find it funny, in a neurotic sort of way. The piece first appeared in Wanderlust Journal, and I want to thank Sarah Leamy for being interested enough to accept it for publication. Enjoy the piece, and make sure to check out the magazine.

Help Celebrate, #IDPD2017

Today marks the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. To learn more about this United Nations initiative, read on.
In 1992, the UN proclaimed December 3 as a day to recognize persons with disabilities. This year’s theme is “Transformation towards sustainable and resilient society for all.”
I can only speak for a small fraction of this population, and only those living in one of the most privileged countries in the world. In Canada, living as a person with a disability doesn’t come with the same challenges as it does for people living in, for example, Brazil.
Accessibility, including access to public buildings and services, continues to be one of the major issues facing many people with disabilities. Accessibility, of course, means different things to different people. For me, as a blind person who uses a white cane, having the pebbled strip along the edges of the LRT platforms in Edmonton gives me warning as I come close to that edge. Believe me—it’s helpful. I’ve fallen off the damned platform twice over the years, once breaking two ribs on a snowy evening in January, 2010.
Accessibility, however, isn’t the only issue. Treating people with dignity is equally important. If, for example, you encounter a person who is deaf accompanied by an interpreter, don’t talk to the interpreter; talk to the person. If you see someone whom you think might need some help, ask before helping, and allow that person the dignity of refusing your help.
When I’m out and about, people ask me all kinds of questions—some of them pointedly personal. I wrote a piece about being asked such questions last year, which you can find in Hippocampus Magazine.
I don’t mind the questions people ask, and I try to answer as best I can. If you are ever in any doubt regarding a question you want to ask a person with a disability, ask yourself the same question first. It’s about being aware, but sometimes it’s just about being sensitive.
Help celebrate this day, but take this United Nations initiative into your life and workplace in meaningful ways. And thank you, in advance.