ACVREP presentation on forum for blind audio description writers

(If you’re new to audio description, check out 20k Hertz’s podcast on audio description here.)

I’m Roy Samuelson, founder audio description network alliance, theADNA.org, a database of AD talent roles, and library of 150 audio interviews of AD professionals.

While I’ve voiced thousands of AD scripts that were written for me, I’ve primarily corresponded with film and tv AD companies on their process, and also shared the advantages of inclusion of blind pros. I’m speaking today because I’ve hired blind AD teams for Oscar nominated film and other recognizable series, by including AD writers who are blind.

There are still many assumptions of AD, particularly of what AD writers do in film and TV. Additionally, there’s confusion of the role Blind AD writers play in the process.

Subjectivity

Any AD writer, blind or sighted, would likely say capturing the visuals is obvious job skill, but it’s a small part of the writing process.

Writing AD is not all technical. This isn’t transcription (which is moving exact words from audio to written word).

In the same way you can’t say this is a bad poem or this is a good poem; AD writing is subjective.

The goal is to paint a picture, not spew facts. It’s relevance – is the visual material captured, yes, but in the best way? What’s important, carve away crap.  AD writing is conceptualizing then curating. What is the story, or message, of the visuals. Writing is craft. And creativity. It’s context, editing, tone, language choice, and much more. 

Blind people have used AD more than sighted people. So that exposure provides an expertise towards knowing what they need, and what works and what doesn’t; that overshadows assumptions that sighted AD writers have. And in the same way sighted people use tools like keyboards to type, and the internet for research, blind writers can use a sighted person as a tool. As terrible as this term I shared a few months ago is – Visual access aggregator – it shows the role of gathering visual information as part of the writing process, not its entirety.

It’s all team work.

I didn’t grow my voice over career by myself. I collaborated with many other professionals: voice over talents, producers, mentors, coaches, advisors, engineers, consultants. And more. No one grows their career in a vacuum. Sighted AD writers collaborate with others. Blind AD writers collaborate too, and just because it may be a different kind of collaboration, is yet another form of professionalism.

“Independent Living isn’t doing everything by yourself — it’s being in control of how things are done.” — Judy Heumann

Naming what you are certifying. We faced barriers with that catch-all term describer.

I understand the catch all term “describer” is a convenient shorthand that works in theater, museums, educational and corporate AD content. Those usually have one person performing multiple roles. While I understand your certification is for more than just film and tv ad; but that segment has 8400+ titles; a clear quantity leader for opportunities for blind people, both up and comers, and working pros. And as far as creation of AD, film and tv AD has multiple roles.

I’ve shared both publicly and privately with many individuals the challenges of that word describer. It may feel clunky or tedious to separate out the AD roles, like AD writer AD voice, AD director, AD casting, AD editing, AD mixing, AD quality control, and more, particularly if one person is doing more than one role. But that word. It creates a barrier for both up and coming and working professionals who are blind – who see AD as “something I can’t do because I can’t see the visuals.”  And any organization that perpetuates that will hold back the beautiful creative crafted amazing work that blind people can contribute to this. So I plead and beg you – please consider multiple terms for the roles in AD, instead of the catch all term describer, so more blind people can know they too have equal opportunities.

And because there are limited opportunities for training or work, there are only a few notable blind writers. They did their job. They shared their experience. Yet, they are prodded and poked, challenged as to “how could you do such and such?” The question wasn’t always coming from a place of curiosity, but from a place of doubt of their abilities. NO blind professional should be put in the discriminatory position of having to defend their how they did something. Yet judgements have been publicly made about AD writers who are blind without even having heard their work. It’s exhausting and demanding of them, beyond what sighted people are put through. 

This work was created for blind people, and by blind people (thank you Rick Boggs for this turn of phrase that I’ve shared far and wide). Blind people should work in it. One of my agendas of hiring blind AD writers was deliberate, to pave the way, open the space even more.

But our writer was put in a terrible position of having to chose to either publicly prove herself by how she did it, which took away from the quality of the work she did, and put her in the position of requiring her to defend her work (no sighted AD writer I know of has been put in this position), or stand back and let the work speak for itself, which could be misconstrued as holding back information from other blind people who want to learn – a form of gatekeeping, limiting the accessibility resources of up and coming blind AD writers – simply because the blind writer doesn’t want to have to defend their work. The prejudgement of “oh they’re a blind AD writer, well I’ll have to hear it first” is something no sighted AD writer would be asked.

If I could make one point: I would caution against using a person’s blindness to hold them to a higher standard than others.  Make the case to figure out how to certify; and the answer isn’t “we can’t” or “let’s do it differently for them”. (if someone makes the case why blind AD writers can’t write AD, it’s a terrible case to make. Saying blind people are not qualified to do something that is created for them is excluding them from part of the process). I applaud all who continue to make the case for YES, and finding the yes.

So, calls to action for the certification committee:

I’ve used my privilege to reach out to filmmakers and producers to show them not only the merits of AD for their work, but the importance of blind AD teams. I’ve been trusted able to hire, and others have hired, blind AD writers, and had positive experiences, results, and understandings.

This panel, and I’m sure in many meetings, you’ve listened to blind pros who have done this work. You are doing the right thing by asking blind writers. And I know of only a handful of individuals and organizations already providing AD training of all kinds. I’m sure they’ve shared with you their experience working with blind AD writers. Today, you’ve heard concerns and suggestions from blind professionals. Hearing them and listening, check. But are you understanding? And are you taking action?

Ask questions from a place of curiosity and not judgement. Again, make the case for why blind writers do this work, without having to single them out or separate them from sighted AD writers.

Hire and pay blind AD writers for the value of their experience and expertise that they share with you. Blind writers have so many people asking of them, demanding their help and consulting; they’ve fought so many battles, and now are being asked even more. Pay them and pay them well for their expertise.

And finally, I’d like to ask you for a follow up to this forum so we can understand the specific actions you’ve taken that results from today’s forum. Will you commit to before the end of this year sharing your actions you’ve taken?

And I ask all of those involved in AD, blind, or sighted, to lead by example and collaboration. Take the privilege, platform, and opportunities that you have, and model them for others, inviting them along the way. Anything less is likely to be construed as self serving, and frankly just talk for your own self promotion. I’m available and interested in following up with anyone here on opportunities I can use to with my platform to grow what needs to be done. And if you are a blind professional support others who are working for this cause.

 

For more, visit theADNA.org podcast.