“What’s Happening?”: on the Importance of Described Video

Described video for the visually impaired is becoming far more widespread in recent years. You’ll often hear “this program is presented with described video for the visually impaired” before The Simpsons, Law and Order, or some other popular TV show. It’s becoming commonplace for movies, too; if you buy a movie, you can often go into the menu and select the described version. It’s not ideal for sighted viewers, of course. The disembodied voice describing detailed versions of what they are already seeing drives some of them crazy, which is why I never insist that they watch the described movie with me. Some, however, think it’s the most entertaining way to watch a movie. These people are very special.

Described TV shows and movies are still regarded as a bit of a luxury (opinions vary) and it’s certainly not a life-or-death situation if someone fails to describe an episode of The Walking Dead. There are times, though, when description is not only helpful, but necessary. Take a look at this PSA about bullying. It’s not as though watching these announcements is likely to save a life, but if they are meant for the “public”, then that public needs to include visually impaired people. Excluding a sizable demographic of the world’s population doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially when there is almost always captioning present for the hearing impaired, and subtitles for those who speak different languages. Shouldn’t we be included, too?

Many of us grew up without described video, even for movies and TV shows, and we still managed to enjoy them as much as sighted people. Sure, it was somewhat restricting, especially for horror and action films, which tend to be a little short on expository dialogue. Either we watched shows that had enough dialogue to go by, or we enlisted a friend or family member who was willing to describe the most important bits to us. It’s not as though we need lavish descriptions; we’re not asking for the moon on a stick. We don’t need to know whether the protagonist is a “dazzlingly beautiful young woman with long blonde ringlets, high cheekbones, and a willowy figure”. Those details are nice (though some describers go a little overboard) but not at all necessary. Very few people need that amount of detail to get the basic gist. I had a friend in junior high who loved describing so much that we’d get together and have movie marathons. He was so dedicated that, for fast-paced movies, he’d get up, hit pause, and describe everything going on. It was lovely. I miss him.

Meaningful description isn’t an unreasonable expectation. People are often hired specifically to provide captioning for the deaf and hearing impaired, so why are people seldom hired to provide descriptions for the blind and visually impaired? There are agencies devoted to describing movies and TV shows, but they don’t usually cover public service announcements and similar videos. Really, they shouldn’t have to.
Description isn’t an extravagant demand made by angry blind people who want to be catered to. Description makes good sense. Nobody bats an eye at providing subtitles and captioning, and it’s time the industry started acknowledging other accessibility challenges as well. There may be other demographics with accessibility restrictions that I don’t even know about, and they need to speak up. If you want your ad or announcement to reach as many people as possible, you’ll need to use inclusive methods of communication. Remember that iconic Super Bowl PSA about domestic violence? It reached us because it had enough dialogue for us to fully understand what was happening. That PSA is a work of art on quite a few levels.

Hey, marketers: you’re always devising new strategies for reaching more people. Description is to your advantage. Many commercials are totally dialogue-free, to the point where I don’t know what half of them are trying to sell me. I’m saying this in a whisper, because no one really likes ads, but maybe invest in some accessibility consultants? It might help your cause.

I’ve written about when accessibility is necessary and when it’s simply helpful. I’m not expecting all my Facebook friends to start describing their cat videos (although I wouldn’t say no to that). I do, however, encourage people to think before they publish. Ask yourself whether this video is important enough to reach millions or even billions of people. Then ask yourself whether it is going to reach as many demographics as possible. If the second question is a no, then start exploring accessibility, for us, and for everyone else, too.

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Don’t Mess with the Stick

While I’m not nearly as attached to my cane as other blind people are to their guide dogs (for obvious reasons) I still like having it around. It’s my mobility tool of choice, and it works well for me. More than that though, it represents security. A cane will almost always tell me what’s directly in front of me. It helps me walk in a straight line, because I can trail along walls, sidewalks and so on. My cane is a major contribution to my independence.
The cane is called many things, some of them peculiar: I’ve heard people call it my “helper”, “walking pole”, and even “special friend”. One older gentleman approached me and asked me whether I hike; “I have one like that, too,” he gushed. It’s hard to keep a straight face, let me tell you. I don’t mind if someone refers to it as my “stick”, but some blind people are particularly sensitive about it. If you’re unsure, just use cane to be on the safe side.

People are sometimes unaware that it’s important to me. They don’t know that it provides a degree of safety I wouldn’t otherwise have. They treat it like any other ordinary object, much the same way you’d treat a coat or backpack. They handle it like something they can take away from me.

When I enter someone’s home, I will often allow the cane to be taken away, for the simple reason that bringing a cane into a house is akin to leaving your shoes on—something that simply isn’t done in my culture, at least. It’s been everywhere my shoes have been, so it’s often trailed through mud, snow, and … other things, of which I prefer to remain ignorant. Unless I feel really uncomfortable navigating a strange house on my own, I will be glad to store the cane and use sighted guide instead.

In all other places, though—including and especially outdoor areas—I insist that my cane remain in my hand and under my control. If I’m left in an unfamiliar area without my cane, I become far less secure in my environment. I’ll walk much slower than normal, in case I bump into something. I tend to shuffle along, because I’m feeling my way with my feet instead of a cane, searching for tactile feedback. I will rely even more heavily on my hearing, so that I stand a chance of detecting larger obstacles like pillars, which create sound shadows. I never feel as blind as when I don’t have my cane with me.

Even when I have it handy, people fail to respect boundaries. They’ll lead me by the cane, pull it out of someone’s path, or even insist that I let go altogether so they can guide me (something I seldom allow). I acknowledge that it really does get in the way sometimes. If I have one hand on a guide’s elbow and the other on my cane, my hands are both occupied. My sighted guides often end up carrying trays, drinks, and other awkward objects I can’t put in a backpack or dangle from my arms. I hate that they have to do this, though they are almost always glad to accommodate. Then of course there is the issue of grace: canes are meant to bump gently against things—that’s what they’re for. If I don’t encounter something with my cane, I usually don’t know it’s there at all. Inevitably, my cane will bump things like ankles and—in one unfortunate case—more sensitive bits. It occasionally trips people, though that can be a symptom of distraction on their part. So, yes, it does make life harder for those around me, especially if they’re not paying much attention.

Although it gets on everyone’s nerves (including my own), I refuse to go most places without my cane. Indeed, when I’m without it, my right hand feels awkward. It’s not used to hanging limply, as though it’s uncomfortable without something to grasp. It’s absurd, really, but without my cane I feel slightly unbalanced. There’s something off about going without, unless I’m in a very familiar environment. Mine is collapsible, so it’s easy to bring it everywhere and fold it up when it’s not in use. That way, it’s there the moment I need it. The cardinal sin of cardinal sins: never, ever abandon me in an unfamiliar environment without my cane. If I’m trusting you enough to go anywhere with you sans mobility tool, don’t break that trust.

I sometimes wish people would respect and tolerate the cane the way they respect and tolerate guide dogs, which are far more conspicuous. My cane can’t bark, play, or scrounge for food, after all.

I hope this post has adequately explained why you shouldn’t mess with my stick, why you mustn’t insist that I leave it behind, and why it’s necessary to witness the stares I’ll invariably get. It’s just one of those things. So please—leave the stick alone.

Accommodation with a Side of Guilt, Please

This evening, I went out to dinner with some friends. I ordered a dish I’ve eaten many times (a salad) only to find that they’ve begun presenting it in a new way: the dressing was in a small cup on the edge of the platter, rather than atop the food as it usually is. I froze, slightly embarrassed. I’ve always had trouble dressing my salad if it’s in a cup. Squeeze bottles? No problem. These give me a certain degree of control. Cups, however, are a different story. (Disclaimer: some blind people have no issue with these whatsoever.) I was just about to ask someone at my table to help when our extremely-attentive server materialized at my elbow:
“Do you want me to take this back and dress it for you?”
“Um…no, it’s okay…it’s just a bit awkward—“
“I totally understand. Don’t worry about it. I’ll be right back.”
Away went my plate. The server appeared several minutes later, saying “Here’s your salad. We have a special rule here where each time food is sent back for any reason, we have to actually make a new dish. So, we just made you a new salad and dressed it for you.”
I was stunned. I had just inadvertently wasted an entire plate of food so that someone could put dressing on top of my salad for me? Forget being slightly embarrassed: I was mortified and, I confess, a little ashamed. While the server reassured me that it was all okay, I silently asked the powers that be to disappear me immediately. They did not oblige.

I’m used to being “accommodated”. Indeed, I often expect it: when I enroll in university classes, each of my instructors is given an accommodation letter, which describes the accommodations I’ll need to participate fully in the classroom. (If I sound like a handbook, that’s because I wrote one—no, really!) I also expect workplaces to make (reasonable) accommodations to the work environment. This is something I’ve been encouraged to view as normal and acceptable. As is typical for me, I have felt heaps of unnecessary guilt over accommodations, even when they are deemed “reasonable”. Once, in ninth grade, my science teacher got together with a few others on staff and made me a periodic table, so I wouldn’t have to use the rather inadequate one in my textbook. My junior high Industrial Arts teacher went out of his way to make sure I could try out all the same equipment everyone else could. He even positioned the end of a nail gun while I fired, showing a remarkable lack of concern for his fingers. (If you’re reading this, I want to thank you. I’ll never forget that one.)

When people go above and beyond the call of duty for me, I feel grateful (healthy) and horribly guilty (unhealthy). Instead of simply thanking people and getting on with things, I waste time and emotional resources worrying about how undeserving or inconvenient or high-maintenance I’m being. While the person who is helping me is busy doing me a favour, I’m busy coming up with all the reasons I shouldn’t be accepting it. Even when I do accept it, as I did with that salad, the shame and humiliation will plague me for days. Yes, you read that correctly: days. This particular incident was so awkward that I’m amazed I didn’t start crying right there at the table; goodness knows I wanted to.

As far as the server was concerned, she was helping a gal out, no more no less. I have no idea what the kitchen staff thought, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they were about a dozen different kinds of exasperated. As far as I was concerned, I’d manage to waste food, fill my server’s time with running back and forth (in a very busy restaurant, I might add) and make a fool of myself all in about five minutes. I’m cringing as I write this, but the more I think about it, the more I realize it needs to be discussed. There are probably a lot of people out there who have felt how I’m feeling right now.

I’m trying to be okay with being accommodated. I’m trying to be at peace with accepting help, and depending on others, and even letting people do me favours now and then. Could I have dressed the damn thing myself? Of course. Would it have been less messy and awkward to have someone else do it? Absolutely. Did I force anyone to do it for me? No. Am I still going to feel awful about it for days to come? Yup.

But should I feel guilty? Most people seem to think I shouldn’t. Accommodations are there for a reason, and in many cases they are universal enough to be made into policy and/or law. But just because it’s not in a handbook or policy statement doesn’t mean it can’t and shouldn’t be done. While imposing unreasonable accommodations on people at work, school, and elsewhere isn’t going to further the cause, it shouldn’t mean that any random act of kindness ought to be rejected.

Should we make a habit of letting people do things for us, especially when we’re capable of doing them ourselves? If you know me at all, then you know I’d never suggest such a thing. However, this does mean that we should be comfortable with accepting what people want to give us now and then. If it’s not a sin to let someone carry your heavy bag, or hold open a door, or grab you a drink (all things sighted people let others do for them on a regular basis) then why not let someone offer kindness if they really, really want to?

I’m learning, guys. I’m learning. But for now…I think I’ll go and have that cry.