See No Evil? Definitely Not Without Audio Description

By Robyn Gaile
Ramp Up 27 Feb 2012

For many years, people who are blind or vision impaired have not had access to cinema or television. Audio description can change that.
Credit: inhauscreative (iStockphoto)

Senator Stephen Conroy last week announced that ABC1 will trial audio description in 2012, giving people who are blind or vision impaired access to something most of us take for granted.

Movie reviews swim through your head as you settle into the upholstered seat with your popcorn. The opening scene starts to screen, setting the background to the movie.

There is no dialogue.

While everyone is watching intently, you sit silently, waiting for a cue to give you a hint of what is being shared on the screen before you. It doesn’t come.

This is my experience as a regular blind movie-goer.

You head home defeated. Your turn on your TV, flicking channels until you come across a program that looks half interesting. You sit down in front of the box with your cup of tea – or a glass of Shiraz and my Braillenote in my case – and settle on Australian Story which is one of my favourite programs. But you temporarily forget that your investment in this show will be thwarted by an inaccessible ending – an ending summarised in captions that are completely inaccessible to someone who is blind like me.

As someone who is blind or vision impaired, you are more than often left in the dark – quite literally – in regards to the comings and goings shown on a movie or TV screen. Many people who are blind or vision impaired have told me that they often decline invitations to attend a movie with friends to avoid ‘putting out’ others who have to describe the visual elements of a film. Then there are the movie goers who not so subtly “ssshhhh” you for whispering through a movie. So you sit in silence, making sense of the plot as best you can or simply dismiss cinemas as “not for you”.

Sure, there are more important agendas in the grander scheme of things. Some people who are blind just accept the sheer lack of access and tell me that it’s just a movie, just a show, and that we have made do for so long.

But that’s exactly the point.

The age old saying “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone” rings true. For someone who has been blind all of their life, it’s hard to know what you don’t have and what you might be missing out on. For someone who has acquired their sight loss later in life – an estimated 480,000 people are blind or vision impaired – suddenly missing out on sharing an intimate experience with others can be a very lonely, bitter pill to swallow.

Access to the cinema has (very slowly) improved for people who are blind or vision impaired with the introduction of audio description (AD) in cinemas. AD is a way to describe the visual elements seen on screen in a clear and private manner. It gives a person who is blind or vision impaired a true sense of what is happening on screen with a description of scenery, costumes, facial expression and body language which is spoken between natural pauses in dialogue.

Receiver mix is used which means that a person who is blind can hear the audio described track through headphones while others in the room only hear the standard audio track.

Audio description is the difference between knowing what is going on and sitting in a dark cinema or your living room feeling included and excluded at exactly the same moment.

On Wednesday last week Senator Conroy announced a 13 week trial of audio description on ABC1. The announcement, something we have been waiting for for over 18 months, was completely lost in the scrum of speculations about the PM leadership, spills and oustings.

This trial may not appear to be as important as a leadership spill – it’s certainly not going to be the catalyst of change for our leadership – but it will markedly change the everyday experience of a person who is blind or vision impaired. We take for granted the impact that TV can have on the formative development of our children, such as the literacy and numeracy taught from programs like Play School. People who have missed out for so long can finally enjoy a medium that is so ingrained in our culture.

A pilot of AD sets the benchmark for other networks and helps to make the availability of AD more commonplace. Many people I know have come to expect the availability of captions for people who are hearing impaired on TV – and these are people who don’t have a hearing impairment. Access that is initially designed for people with disability can have broader benefits, including to people who would not traditionally “need” it.

But a pilot of AD on TV has broader implications too. The increased proliferation of AD lends itself to use in other areas of life such as educational videos shown to school children and increased accessibility of information made to the public. It starts to eliminate one of the barriers – information access – that plagues people with blindness.

A friend of mine perhaps said it best:

“People think that this is simply about television but it’s more that that. It’s about our right to enjoy all parts of life just like everyone else”. Let’s just hope that the pilot becomes more than just that.

Enough said.

Robyn Gaile is the Executive Officer of Blind Citizens Australia. Blind Citizens Australia is unique in that the organisation is solely made up of and represents people who are blind or vision impaired. All of BCA’s Board of Directors, Committees and Executive Officer are required by the company’s Constitution to be a person who is blind or vision impaired. Learn more about Blind Citizens Australia at

This article was prepared by Robyn Gaile and Jessica Zammit.

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