Thursday, May 14, 2015

Putting People First: Deciding What Is Important Contextually

Describe the sun to a person who has been blind their whole life, and you will likely find some challenges. For example, what is this thing called "color" or "bright"? What does red or yellow look like? But you can tell a blind person that the sun is round like a ball because that is something they can relate to, something they can feel here on Earth - definitely don't encourage trying to touch the actual sun!

As usual around this time in May, I headed down to Austin, Texas, for the annual John Slatin AccessU Conference hosted by Knowbility. And as usual, they bring some kind of art or cultural experience to the conference in respect to some aspect of accessibility compliance. The keynote speaker this year was the Blind Film Critic himself, Tommy Edison, and he took us on a journey through audio descriptions on Monday night at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema on South Lamar.

Right now audio descriptions feel like the adopted children of video players and movie theaters (and probably every other theatre) when it comes to accessibility options. We are becoming more and more accustomed to providing closed captioning for the deaf, but what about the actions that are important for the story that the blind cannot comprehend based on sounds and dialogue alone?

Blind audience members were dismayed when their blind superhero, Marvel's Daredevil, came to Netflix without audio descriptions. Daredevil's alter ego, Matt Murdock, is constantly provided with audio descriptions of people's actions by his friends throughout each episode, but the same could not be said for the Netflix subscribers who complained about this irony. Netflix announced a decision to start adding audio descriptions four days after posting the entire season.

"Oh, sorry, you didn't see that. She just nodded her head."

Tommy Edison judged attendees, instructors, and staff of the AccessU conference to a contest of audio description to see who could describe 90 seconds worth of a scene the best. Before anyone took a shot at it, some attendees took an audio description class Monday morning and the rest of us enjoying the show at the Alamo Drafthouse listened to a professional audio describer depict the 2015 Oscar winner for an animated short film Feast. She was lucky, though. She'd seen Feast maybe ten times beforehand and refined her description to best tell the story. We, however, watched an entirely different short film, and had to come up with a description to a story we had never seen before. Everyone tried hard, but it was obvious that without understanding the story and without properly analyzing the scenes, where dialogue and sound began and ended, you aren't providing anywhere near the full story.

Audio descriptions are the alternative text for moving images, so you can take much of your instruction from the average alternative text guide for website compliance (many of which are posted on A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words... Literally). As a sighted audience member, I am overwhelmed with visual information. So if I were to try to describe what is happening in any scene or an entire movie, which details do I include? Which ones are important? More importantly, which details are important to a person who is blind?

For example, the short film we were audio describing had three white characters and one black character. Do we describe the fourth character as being black? Again, those born blind do not know what color looks like. Unless the fact that the character is black, as opposed to the actor portraying the character being black, is important to the context of the story, this detail can be ignored. It provides no essential information to the story, so it wastes otherwise important and precious time to describe something else.

One hang up I had while the professional was describing the dog in Feast was that she wasn't describing all the visual cues, the facial and body language. That, I learned, is information blind people would not comprehend anyway, unless you don't mind your privacy being invaded by someone constantly touching your face for new facial expressions. However, blind audiences can gather a great deal from verbal cues like inflection and pitch while speaking.

This hang up is one we all share. So often when we come up with content, we look at it from our own point of view, what we think our audience wants or needs. This only helps us, not our audience which makes them more confused and need to ask more questions from us. We have to turn our focus to them, get in their shoes. What is important to them? Focus on the important details.

Interesting little debate that we somewhat covered over comedic scenes: due to the fact that the audio description needs to occur at times when other sounds and dialogue are not the focus, a blind audience member listening on their headset may start laughing at the punchline to a joke seconds before the rest of the audience gets the punchline visually at the movie theater. They say people have actually told the blind attendees to hold back their reactions, but is that discrimination? By telling them they cannot experience and react to the performance naturally, on their own time, are you making it a better experience for one group of people or all groups of people?

Don't understand the situation? Okay, let's say you are on Facebook or Twitter or whatever social medium, and you had to work the late shift during a TV show that you absolutely love, and you just told all your friends not to say a word because it would totally spoil it for you. Keep in mind, they have lots of other friends who are interacting with each other on social media while watching the same show, but you've just told them they can't have any interaction at all in relation to this TV show because you would see it before you turned on your DVR. Is it the same kind of discrimination? Do they have the right to post the spoilers? Is it possible for you to ignore those posts (or laughs) for a short period of time to catch up with them later? What do you think?