How Do People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Watch TV and Movies?

April 23, 2015

Netflix’s recent announcement about availability of audio description for its popular series “Marvel’s Daredevil” brought to mind the also popular question: how can you watch TV if you can’t see? This is a question that I as a blind person often get from sighted individuals. It is still possible to enjoy your favorite TV shows, movies and plays as a person with vision loss.  However, some creativity and accessibility features can help.

By paying close attention and using your imagination you can often tell what’s going on in a TV show without being able to see. If you listen carefully to things like the dialogue, sound effects, etc. most of the time you can tell what is happening. For example, if I hear the roar of a car engine along with someone mentioning he is about to go somewhere I can assume that he’s on his way.

Of course, it’s not always possible for someone with low or no vision to follow a TV show simply by listening to what’s going on. Details like a character’s facial expressions, clothes he or she is wearing, body language, etc. are impossible to appreciate simply by listening to the dialogue or other actions. This is where audio description comes in handy!

Audio description is the narration of visual elements that would otherwise not be accessible to individuals with vision loss. A specially trained narrator announces what is happening when there is no dialogue taking place. The visual elements that are narrated in these descriptions include costumes, facial expressions, physical actions, scene changes and settings.

Many popular networks, such as PBS, FOX and CBS offer audio description for some of their programs. More TV networks will begin offering audio description in the near future thanks to the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, or CVAA. Among other things, this act will require commercial broadcast, cable and motion picture networks to provide more programming with audio description.

Of course, the next thing you might be wondering is how can you get audio description. Until now, the most common way of accessing audio description was through the Secondary Audio Program (SAP) channel on televisions. Unfortunately, because the menus to access this setting are entirely visual, people with little or no vision need assistance from someone who is sighted to turn on this feature. Furthermore, it is very unlikely to find a specific button to enable this function on remote controls.

The CVAA also requires television and cable providers, mobile phones and other communication technologies to be fully accessible to people with vision loss. In other words, menus to access audio description must be entirely accessible to people with visual impairments. Please note that while some cable providers and mobile phone companies are already offering some accessibility features to customers, these and other requirements set by this act will gradually be implemented over time.

Audio description is also available in movie theaters and live performances. People who wish to listen to the audio description at movie theaters or performing arts theatres simply request a special headset and receiver provided by the facility. While audio description soundtracks for movies and TV shows are pre-recorded, live performances are described by live narrators who are watching the play in a separate booth.

Being blind or visually impaired doesn’t mean we cannot or do not enjoy television, the movies or theatre performances. By using our imagination as well as having access to audio described media, we can enjoy TV, the movies and theatre as much as those with sight. Not everyone needs or wants to watch shows with audio description, but for me it’s wonderful to know that this option is increasingly available thanks to new regulations.

This page from the American Council of the Blind provides the latest updates regarding the CVAA as well as additional resources for how to find programs and movies that are audio described. Finally, you can listen to an audio description sample of the trailer for Disney’s “Frozen” here.

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