In A Flash Episode 2: Audio Description
In A Flash is a short, accessible, and sometimes irreverent podcast offering an introduction to topics important to disabled people and disability communities. This podcast is made for the Creativity in the Time of COVID-19: Art as a Tool for Combating Injustice and Inequity project at Michigan State University through the generous support of the Mellon Foundation.
Grab your popcorn! Cheryl Green and Thomas Reid take us to the theater and remind our senses of what it could be if we keep imagining more accessible worlds together. In disability community, we see access not as a checklist or a way to avoid getting sued. No, access is part of making vibrant communities and good art. Our guests today are experts in audio description a key piece of access for blind and low vision people. Audio description is a narration of the key visual components of a story. It includes dynamic translation between visual and aural. What does it mean to imagine access not at the end of the creative process but at the very start? You can learn more about Cheryl Green WhoAmIToStopIt.com and check out Thomas Reid’s ReidMyMind.com
[energetic synth rock music with heavy percussion]
JESS: Welcome to In A Flash, a DisTopia conversation. I’m Jessica Stokes, your host with too much red hair and a purple wheelchair. I’m here with a short, accessible, and sometimes irreverent podcast on disability culture and community. [music fades out]
So, in our episodes, we start by introducing you to a topic important to disabled people. Today’s topic is about making creative projects in visual mediums, from movies, dance, theater, and tv shows accessible. But we’re not gonna be in the nitty gritty details of the how-to. We’re gonna really spend some time with the why it’s important, what it entails, and how it could change your life to think accessibility in this new way. So, after we introduce the topic, then we connect that topic to everyday life, today, through a vibrant conversation with some guests I’m super excited to introduce to you. And then we’ll end with practical takeaways. This isn’t just an info dump, but a way to change your everyday.
Some people start conversations around access by turning to the law and figuring out what components of access are and aren’t legally required. What angle does this ramp have to be? How high do we need this sink? While I like my sinks below eye height so that I can spend a lot of time looking at my gorgeous hair in the mirror when I’m wheeling from here to there—I know it’s shocking—but that sink below eye height thing, it’s just a teeny component to creating a more accessible world. In disability community, we see access not as a checklist or this way to avoid getting sued. No, access is part of making vibrant communities and good art. It’s integral to the creative process.
Our guests today are experts in audio description. Audio description is a narration of the key visual components of a story. It includes dynamic translation between visual and aural.
Our guests today are Cheryl Green and Thomas Reid. Cheryl Green integrates her training in Performance As Public Practice and Speech-Language Pathology to explore how story can be used to address bias and break down barriers. She brings her own experiences with TBI and invisible disabilities to making media that combine personal narrative and political activism. So, translation? She’s a badass. Her artistic goals focus on making media accessible, cross-disability collaboration, and building equity.
Our second guest who I’m excited to welcome is Thomas Reid. He lost his sight in 2004 as a result of cancer. Disturbed by the lack of accessibility he experienced, he helped launch a local advocacy organization and pursued his interests in audio production to promote topics pertaining to vision loss. His objective is to help those new to vision loss navigate all aspects of the adjustment to the experience. Thank you so much for being here with us. [energetic synth rock music break]
How you got into audio description
JESS: Cheryl, Thomas, we’re glad to have you. And I was wondering if you could start by telling us how you got into audio description?
THOMAS: After I became blind, I learned about audio description and had a need for it and started to consume AD. So, you know, movies were always a big part of my life, and I just kind of wanted to have that access again. But then also, within my podcast, Reid My Mind Radio, I began exploring the topic of AD pretty early on. I also explored the topic within an episode around Black Panther and the narrator, the voice of the narrator and some other choices. And so, I really started thinking about AD.
And in between 2015 and 2018, I was thinking about it from the perspective of, wow, can I get involved? And I talked to some folks within the industry, and I kind of started to get…. I was getting dissuaded. They were telling me things like, “Well, you know, I can see a blind person sort of getting involved maybe in editing because we know a lot of blind guys are doing audio, blind men and women are doing audio editing.”
Well, I would say that Cheryl gave me my first shot at doing so, and we co-narrated a piece with Alice Sheppard’s performance of Inclinations. That was my first opportunity. And then during the pandemic, because of the podcast, because some folks were listening to it in the AD field, I got a shot doing a project on Netflix. And I was one of the first, the first blind narrator with that particular company and started doing projects ever since with them and with some other companies. So, that was sort of the long version, well, the short version of a long story. But yeah, that was the process.
CHERYL: I got into audio description by hearing somebody whispering through an entire screening of one of my films, and afterward I asked, “Hey, why was that person whispering to that other person?” And they explained, “Well, this person couldn’t see the film, and so the other person was just telling him what was on screen.” And after I finished a lifetime of face-palming, turned out it was Carmen Papalia. Carmen explained to me what it was that could’ve been done to make the film so that he didn’t have to have somebody whispering in his ear through the whole thing. That’s how I got into audio description. And I just ate it up, started hiring an audio describer, Alyson Osborne, to do all of my film screenings. She did them live. She went back later and described that film that Carmen had been watching. I just loved it so much. I’ve gotten 50 hours of training and just love pursuing it. That’s how I got into it.
[rock-y, folky music break]
Tell us what bad audio description is like
JESS: Now, let’s talk about, we know why audio description matters. We have these really vivid examples from your lives of the importance of audio description. It’s just there in how you came to it in the first place. But can you tell us what bad audio description is like?
CHERYL: One of the fundamental things that sets me up to make bad audio description is the filmmaker who does not leave any room for something creative. So, for example, if they’re doing these very fast cuts, and they tell me, “Yes, but this is what people like,” I’m like, which people?! People who don’t use audio description? Why are you hiring me to do audio description if you don’t care what people who use audio description like? When there’s no time, all I can do is, [fast announcer voice] “Three people on a Zoom call.” And there’s no room for creativity, and there’s no possibility to be expansive in immersive and beautiful in it.
THOMAS: It could be just a poorly written script, maybe even adding things that don’t need to be added, right?
THOMAS: So, “The phone rings.” [clicks tongue] Come on, man, I heard the phone, okay?
THOMAS: So, that’s bad audio description. It could be the narrator. The narrator’s voice may not fit for whatever reason. For many different reasons, the narrator’s voice may not fit the piece. That could lead to bad audio description. And then even in the mix, right? So, sometimes we can get a poorly mixed AD track in the film, and so as a user, as a consumer, I’m riding the volume because when the AD track comes in, it’s really low. So, I have to lift up the volume. And then here comes the actual film soundtrack, and I have to lower it back down again because it’s gonna blow my eardrums out. Again, that’s a poor experience with all of those three, and all of those three things definitely, to me at least, equal bad description.
[rock-y, folky music break]
An oral letter to someone whose mind you’d like to change
JESS: Now that we’ve been through the bad, the potential openings up, and the good and the transformative of audio description, let’s end this portion of the podcast with an oral letter to someone whose mind you’d like to change. I wonder, what would you say to someone in the audience to shift their perception of audio description or disability culture more broadly?
CHERYL: One of the many oral letters I would like to write [chuckles] and send is to the folks who get irritated and feel like, “But, why do I have to do this? Blind people don’t like movies. How many blind people are gonna watch this movie? It sure costs a lot. It just costs too much to do this,” my letter is to the people who are not or would not typically be users of audio description who have an endless list of the reasons why we just should not do it, that mainly focus on themselves and have nothing to do with the experience of somebody who wants or needs audio description. I would ask them to take themselves out of the center of that and frame it more as, “How can I make this film, for example, more interesting and exciting and available to a larger audience,” and not always complain that people who want some accessibility are getting extras that they somehow don’t deserve. So, enjoy my letter. [laughs]
THOMAS: So, I think my message would—and this is usually who my message is for—my message nowadays when it comes to AD is specifically for those who are blind, low vision, who still today believe that movies, television, visual content is not for them because traditionally, that has been the case. And I would want to probably not write a letter because I would wanna show, not tell, [laughs] right? I would love to be able to rent the theater and bring a bunch of folks, fill that theater up—you know, you get some popcorn, get some candy, ‘cause you can’t have the movie without the popcorn—and show them this experience, actually give them this experience and then have this kind of a conversation afterward. Because I believe they would feel different. But again, there are so many people out there who still today believe that it’s not for them, because that has been their experience. So, I wanna talk to them.
[rock-y, folky music plays until the end]
Wrap-up and our takeaway
Thank you, Cheryl and Thomas, for reimagining the center of the frame and for actually making movies more pleasurable for as many people as possible. May we all have butter on our fingertips and too much popcorn in our stomachs soon! Now let’s transition to our takeaway.
I’m turning to you, dear audience. How do we imagine access not as an afterthought but as integral to our everydays? We foreground access rather than adding it later? You can’t write a script with three-second cuts and expect quality audio description, right? Access needs to be there, part of your imagining of the world from the start. Or more simply, you can’t host a party without checking on venue accessibility if you expect your disabled self (yes, sometimes I forget my own access needs!) or your friends to feel welcome.
So, get outta here! Go forth! Make an accessible movie and watch it surrounded by butter and friends. You’ve got work to do to create a more accessible world, and some of that work is experiencing that world that you’ve created. So, have a fun movie night with your friends. Go forth. You’ve got work to do.
In A Flash Episode 2: Audio Description (Teaser)
Grab your popcorn! Guests Cheryl Green and Thomas Reid take us to the theater and remind our senses of what it could be if we keep imagining more accessible worlds together.
[Mellow Downtempo tune softly playing in the background]
Jessica: Welcome to In a Flash, a DisTopia conversation. I’m Jessica Stokes, your host. Today’s topic is about making creative projects in visual mediums for movies, dance theater and TV shows accessible. In disability community we see access not as a checklist or this way to avoid getting sued. No, access is part of making vibrant communities and good art. Our guests today, Cheryl Green and Thomas Reid, are experts in audio description.
Cheryl: I got into audio description by hearing somebody whispering through an entire screening of one of my films.
Thomas: After I became blind I learned about audio description and had a need for it. I would love to be able to rent the theater and bring a bunch of folks, fill that theater up. You know, get some popcorn, get some candy, because you can’t have the movie without popcorn. And show them this experience, actually give them this experience.
[Instrumental Music plays}
Guest: Cheryl Green & Thomas Reid
Host: Jessica Stokes
Audio Producer: Taylor Kaigler
Transcript by Taylor KaiglerMusic: Hammond by Waiting for Sound
The cover for this podcast foregrounds a pair of circular photos. On the left is a professional headshot of a brown skin Black man with a smooth shaven head, goatee, wearing dark shades and a gray button up shirt. He wears a smile like he knows you’re looking at him, but doesn’t care because he’s having fun! On the right is a professional headshot of a white Ashkenazi Jewish woman with olive complexion and brown, curly hair and a purple top. She smiles at the camera with an average kind of smile that you give your headshot photographer. Connecting the pictures is a blue audio wavelength, peaking and dipping as it radiates out to the sides, making the top third of the image look like dark blue sunglasses reflecting headshots of the guests and giving the overall impression of a yellow-orange robot with a pink and red bow. The text reads: DisTopia. In a Flash. Episode 2: Audio Description. Hosted by Jessica Suzanne Stokes.