Describing Audio Description

Audio Description (AD) is a narration track that is played in addition to the dialogue and soundtrack of a film; it is primarily intended to benefit blind and visually impaired audiences. The commentary describes the visual elements of the media, such as body language and expressions which can assist a blind or visually impaired person’s enjoyment of a film, especially if these visual elements are crucial to the film’s storytelling. The first audio-described programme to air on UK television is believed to have been Coronation Street, over 25 years ago. 2018 saw the first audio-described advert which was championed by Fairy Liquid and broadcasted on ITV.

Curious to hear how audio description sounds? Here’s an audio described trailer for Frozen

Many cinemas have AD facilities installed, a system that delivers AD through a headset. Headsets are generally provided at the box office when customers collect their tickets; the AD track is undetectable unless you are wearing a headset yourself. Streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime usually provide AD for their content, as well as online broadcaster services such as BBC and Channel 4.

Several theatres across the UK provide audio description, this is delivered through means of infrared, radio or WiFi to a receiver that customers can book in advance. Audiences can familiarise themselves with the set in advance of the audio described performance by attending an onstage touch tour where they have the opportunity to handle props and customers, and to meet the cast.

Museums and galleries offer audio description through a variety of options to support accessibility for blind people. Recorded AD guides can help blind or visually impaired people enjoy visiting galleries independently. These guides supply descriptions of the exhibitions as well as directions to aid navigation through the establishment. Some museums and galleries offer opportunities to touch particular artefacts as part of a group. Many museums and galleries have created tactile replicas of famous artworks, such as the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam with their ‘Feeling Van Gogh‘ programme. This programme is an interactive exhibition where people can feel, smell and listen to the ‘Sunflowers’.

Van Gogh's painting of sunflowers in a vase with a yellow background
Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’

Advocates are aiming to ensure all platforms are streaming accessible content, and the next push is for adverts to adopt audio description tracks. Apple has announced that the Apple TV+ will be optimised to be accessible for both blind and deaf audiences.

“Audiences worldwide can enjoy Apple TV+ originals subtitled and/or dubbed in nearly 40 languages, including Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing (SDH) or closed captions. Apple TV+ series and movies will also be available with audio descriptions in eight languages.”

Apple

If you wish to learn more about audio description, then visit the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) website.

Revisiting A Quiet Place: Disability Representation

A Quiet Place is my go-to film when quoting the success that captioned showings contribute to the film industry. I often argue that cinemas are missing a trick by failing to provide more captioned screenings, an issue that is adjacent to the overall dismissal of accessibility within cinema and the film industry. I discussed the topic of captioned cinema screenings in more depth in an earlier post I wrote.

A Quiet Place is a 2018 American post-apocalyptic horror film directed by and starring John Krasinki. The film also stars Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe. The plot centres a family struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland inhabited by blind extra-terrestrial predators with an advanced sense of hearing. The majority of the film is subtitled as the characters communicate using American Sign Language; there are very few scenes with English dialogue. The film’s suspense and horror element is the direct effect of overwhelming silence.

John Krasinki's character is looking into the camera with his finger to his mouth, signaling to be quiet.
John Krasinki

A Quiet Place was released in the United States in April 2018 and was a significant box office success, grossing over $340 million worldwide. A sequel, A Quiet Place: Part II is set to be released in March 2020.

Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe respectively play the roles of Regan and Marcus, the daughter and son of the family. Regan is hard of hearing and wears a cochlear implant, suggesting that the family were already well versed in American Sign Language. The family’s survival and evolutionary advantage through alternative methods of communication are partly owed to Regan’s disability, a refreshing narrative of disability that is later developed in the film’s progression. The actress cast to play the role of Regan, Millicent Simmonds, is Deaf herself. The filmmakers hired an ASL interpreter so that spoken and signed language could take place on set. Simmonds helped her colleagues to learn sign language, encouraging the fluidity and authenticity of the cast’s use of sign language during the film.

Emily Blunt is telling Millicent Simmonds to be quiet.
A Quiet Place, from Paramount Pictures.

I was pleased that a Deaf actress had been hired to play Regan, disabled actors are usually ignored to such a degree that they are a rarity in film and television’s depiction of disabled characters. Disability is an identity much like race or gender, but the arts are lacking in disability representation. Instead, disabled individuals like myself regularly see non-disabled actors emulate the characteristics of a marginalised group without any outreach into the community they depict. It’s protocol now that non-disabled actors who are cast for disabled characters gain critical acclaim and take home Oscars. John Hurt in the Elephant Man, Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Holly Hunter in The Piano, Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby, Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and many more have received applause for their performances. It seems that critics adore and advocate for sentimental and exploitative depictions of disabled characters.

Daniel Day-Lewis in the film My Left Foot. He is sitting in a wheelchair with a basket of food on his lap, a woman is behind him.
Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot

My opinion isn’t that non-disabled actors shouldn’t play those roles, but I do believe that the playing field has to be levelled out so that disabled actors are at least allowed the opportunity to audition for these roles. The exclusion of disabled actors is prevalent; it is a systemic problem that is industry-wide.

Millicent Simmonds‘ breakthrough performance brings a level of substance and authenticity to Regan, a role that was close to home for me. I had the opportunity to see this film at the beautifully furnished Birks Cinema in Aberfeldy. I rewatched A Quiet Place on DVD, and while I still enjoyed it, the atmosphere of the film is better suited to quieter cinema screenings with minimal popcorn munching.

Despite my enthusiasm for this movie, I had one major disappointment with the distribution of A Quiet Place. There are some crucial scenes with English dialogue that contribute to the plot, so I had to attend a SUBTITLED version of the film. Instead of subtitling the entire movie, for the benefit of both hearing and Deaf people as the film utilises both spoken and signed languages, some scenes didn’t have sign language or subtitles when English was being spoken. I was frustrated as this was a film that centred a Deaf character and the use of ASL, yet it was only hearing people that were accommodated for the entirety of the film.

Films that portray authentic depictions of disabled characters and prioritise involvement with the disabled community are valued as they help pave the path for disabled people to tell their own stories. If you haven’t seen A Quiet Place, then please watch and support this film, I promise you won’t regret it.

Caption This

Imagine that you’re at the cinema to see the latest blockbuster: you’re sitting in your seat, overpriced popcorn in hand, waiting in anticipation for the film to begin rolling. The film starts to play! But… there’s no sound. You begin to realise that the entire film is in British Sign Language. There’s one problem… you don’t know any sign language.

Now imagine that less than 2% of film screenings in your area are provided with English audio and dialogue, with screenings often taking place in the morning during a weekday. Now replace ‘audio’ with ‘subtitles’. This is a real issue faced by Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH) individuals in the UK who wish to attend a cinema showing of the latest film.

Between February and June 2018, #SubtitledCinema campaigners Ellie Parfitt and Michelle Hedley studied four cinemas and the subtitled showings these establishments individually provided over the course of four months. The cinemas are based in Norwich, Northumbria and their surrounding areas.
The lowest statistic found from their research was an astounding 31 subtitled showings out of a total of 7,618 screenings, this is 0.4% of screenings per week. The highest statistic was 153 subtitled showings out of a total of 5,898, an average of 2.6% of screenings per week. Their research revealed that during these four months there were more than 5,000 screenings that hearing people were able to attend. In comparison, Deaf/HoH customers were provided with 150 projections that were at convenient times. This is only 3% of the opportunities afforded to hearing customers.

Many multiplex cinemas argue that there is a lack of demand for subtitled showings, with low numbers of attendance. 11 million people are living with a hearing loss in the UK, this is the equivalent of 1 out of every 6 people. However, if cinemas continue to screen subtitled showings at unreasonable times, such as 11 am on a Tuesday, when most people are working, there isn’t going to be an audience. This isn’t because people don’t want to attend, it’s because of inaccessibility. If these showings are rescheduled to more convenient timings, with efficient and proactive advertising, this would increase demand and audience presence.

Since the arrival of streaming services such as BBC iPlayer and Netflix, the popularity of subtitles has risen with many hearing users opting to switch on captions. Many people struggle to understand the dialogue of films for several reasons, regardless of whether they are hearing impaired or not. Subtitles can also be beneficial for those whose first language isn’t English.

On a more anecdotal note, the first-ever captioned screening I saw was Star Wars: The Force Awakens during my family’s Christmastime tradition of a cinema trip on Christmas Eve. I didn’t even realise the screening we were attending was going to be captioned. I hardly ever went to the cinema as I preferred to wait for the DVD to be released so I could watch the film with subtitles. I never even realised captioned film screenings at cinemas were available. Watching films without subtitles means I have to concentrate a lot more than hearing people would, and I would still miss out on important plot points and dialogue crucial to the film’s storytelling. This accidental subtitled screening completely changed my cinematic experience, as it meant I was able to complain about the plot holes and laugh about the punchlines during the car ride home. I wasn’t left out of a shared experience. Even though subtitled cinema screenings are sparse, these showings allowed me to gradually fall in love with film, leading me to join my University’s Film Society and to becoming President of said Film Society. We even went on to organise a subtitled short film festival at our local independent cinema, the Belmont Filmhouse.

If you would like to learn more about this issue, then visit Action On Hearing Loss. If you would like to help, then you can sign this petition!

YourLocalCinema.com is a website that displays all of the subtitled showings available in your local area, this is a website that I use religiously so that I don’t have to check all of the individual cinemas’ websites for subtitled showings, I highly recommend it.