In Living ColorAudio Description Looks Past People of Color

an illustration of a man and a woman sitting beside each other on a purple couch looking at a TV with three people of various shades on the screen

Illustration by Ananya Rao-Middleton

Marvel’s Luke Cage series was a much better experience than Black Panther. Perhaps it’s an unpopular opinion, but for me it’s all about the details: the variety of identities that make up New York City, the urban fashion, and, of course, the mural of the Notorious B.I.G. with a slightly tilted crown, all of which put a big smile on my face. The way the show handled audio description (AD) made me feel at home. At first glance, audio description sounds simple, providing information about scenes in film, television, live theater, or any other visual medium where there’s no dialogue. Consider how much information is conveyed nonverbally in your favorite film, streaming series, live theater performance, or other visual art. There’s the back- and foreground scenery, costumes, and landscapes (consider the lush green environment in The Lord of the Rings series). Facial expressions, hand gestures, and body language are also used to communicate emotion; onscreen text that provides pertinent information, such as “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…,” in Star Wars; and of course, the aesthetic choices filmmakers make consciously and unconsciously that impact viewers’ interpretation of the film.

For the millions of individuals experiencing some form of blindness—from those with “low vision” to those who are totally blind—AD provides access to a variety of visual content. Like retrofitting buildings or other physical spaces where there are real constraints that prevent expansion, AD has its built-in challenges such as space—the amount of description is limited to the time available between dialogue. Assuring pertinent and accurate information is provided often means choosing what’s most important for understanding the plot. Invariably, many details are left behind. When provided, AD is one of the very last steps in the postproduction process prior to distributing, airing, or streaming a project. But requiring a reduced production window may not allow for quality assurance and incentivizes shortcuts, as we see with the current trend to substitute human narration with synthesized voices. Studios rationalize these choices by noting that it reduces costs and time, but these choices can also reduce the experience for many. Understanding the audience presents another challenge for those writing appropriate descriptions. Those unfamiliar with blindness assume it means never having any sight at all.

Meanwhile, most people who are blind at some point either had some sight or continue to have residual vision even if it’s not especially useful for consuming video content, shadows, or light perception. When considering how to write a description for those who are blind, the question often asked is: How do you describe color to a blind person who has never seen? Most of the answers suggest relating colors to other senses as in equating hot to red. While this will not help conjure an image in the blind person’s mind’s eye, it can be helpful to get an understanding and effectively communicate concepts and ideas. For example, ROYGBIV is an acronym that refers to the colors of a rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). While caused by the refraction and dispersion of the sun’s light by rain in the atmosphere, it’s also commonly used to communicate the idea of living together in harmony. Blind people learn the colors of the United States flag and colors that represent our favorite sport teams. We most certainly learn the color of our skin and whether directly or not, the implication that has in society.

Yet, for years the working standard for describing race, ethnicity, or skin color in media has been to only include those things that are deemed applicable to the plot—meaning the film or scene is implicitly about race. When that’s not considered the case, the common practice has been color blindness—a choice to purposefully not include a character’s color or racial identification in the description and assume the default is whiteness. Color blindness is based on the idea that advancements in society are based on one’s merit. It’s a social construct that completely eliminates race and therefore allows individuals to believe they’re judging others solely by the content of their character. Color blindness does not see value in a person’s race or color and it doesn’t leave room for discussing the impact or perpetuation of white supremacy. A color-blind society doesn’t see value in difference, meaning it’s impossible to ensure justice or fairness. Similarly, the exclusion of color or racial identification from AD continues to limit accessibility for blind people by not producing an experience similar to that of our non-blind peers who casually glean this information.

There is no one set of guidelines to aid those producing AD, but if we look at those published by Netflix, it’s clear that the company recognizes the importance of inclusion: “When considering whom to describe and in what detail, consider both the needs of the plot and the importance of representation,” it reads. “Description should be factual and prioritize an individual’s visual attributes to address their most significant identity traits, such as hair texture, skin color, eyes color, build, height, age description (such as late thirties, fifties, teenage, etc.), traits related to visible disabilities, etc. and should be done consistently for all main and relevant supporting characters that are being described (i.e., do not single out a character because of a specific trait, describe everyone equally).”

Blind people want and deserve access to the same information as our non-blind counterparts.

AD writers have an indication of a character’s race, color, or ethnicity. They have multiple ways of ascertaining and communicating that information to the viewer. It should be up to viewers both blind and non-blind to interpret and decide what is relevant, not those producing the AD, and it’s the AD writers’ responsibility to provide access. In the same way ramps enable wheelchair users to get into a building, what they do when they get in there is their business. As a Black man who became blind as an adult, my experience in the United States means race, color, and ethnicity are always relevant. Focusing on film, the relevancy of race began with the first motion picture, A Birth of a Nation, which includes a racist portrayal of Black people while propagandizing a heroic KKK. Not only did it reinvigorate the Klan’s membership, but the film also generated the caricatures seen for years to come. Black stories and characters have been told through a white lens or absent from screen since the inception of filmmaking.

For years, our creative voices have been systematically silenced. While our representation in the media is not yet up to par, there are far more Black and Brown people on screens large and small these days. When it comes to blind viewers, if AD is produced without identifying information, Black representation onscreen is being erased. Blind people want and deserve access to the same information as our non-blind counterparts. AD content must go beyond identifying only BIPOC characters. It must include describing white people as well. It must include BIPOC audio descriptors. Failing to do so assumes that white is the norm and amounts to a perpetuation of white-supremacist ideology. Fortunately, this conversation has been taking place over the past few years and we see signs of change. Much discussion is taking place in the disability arts community with artists such Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson incorporating AD into their art while advancing the technology for consumers, as with their most recent piece One + One Make Three. AD professionals such Cheryl Green from Portland, Oregon, Rebecca Singh from Toronto, and others are moving this conversation forward and creating equitable content—helping assure we are all visible—onscreen and off.

by Thomas Reid
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Thomas Reid is a freelance audio producer, voiceover artist, and audio description narrator. His podcast, Reid My Mind Radio, features compelling people impacted by all degrees of blindness and disability. In addition to sharing some of his own experiences as a man adjusting to becoming blind as an adult, he explores topics such as representation in media, the intersection of race and disability and, of course, audio description.