“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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