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.