April 2022, I was honored to share the stage with Melody Goodspeed and Satauna Howery, discussing the inclusion opportunities in audio description, and how it relates to inclusion of disabled professionals. Here’s the text from my portion of the “Championing access and Inclusion in Hollywood” panel. (I still have hope I’m not the only one to ever say the word “shitty” during an accessibility talk – but I got Satauna and Melody’s approval.)
I’m a tall white man with medium short hair, with a plaid shirt under a leather looking shirt jacket. Or jacket shirt.
I’ve had the privilege of working with and within the Blind and low vision community for more than 10 years now, and count Melody and Satauna as two particularly treasured colleagues. They occupy and enrich their areas of expertise with confidence and integrity, and it’s always a pleasure to join them – be it on any particular project or initiative, or here today.
Yesterday, Stephanae McCoy of Bold Blind Beauty talked about modeling for inclusion. Hollywood has been – with a few painful exceptions – an admirable trendsetter, when it comes to adopting social initiatives that open up more possibilities for us all to connect. Connection is what drives my own value.
As DEI secures an ever stronger foothold in corporate strategy, the entertainment industry continues to model how easy and appropriate opportunities for diversity, equity, and inclusion actually are. Now that we have a glimpse into the world of AD from an employment view, some questions remain: what opportunities actually exist today, which are in an unmistakable state of development, and what still needs to be created?
We’re going to talk about some of the “wins” that bring change and opportunities for blind and disabled professionals in this art form.
As Satauna and Melody already touched upon, a proven benefit, both economic and social, is the removal of noise and friction: when production organizations create better workflows, every part of the value chain benefits. The same applies with AD: refining and evolving the AD workflow connects professionals and audiences more rewardingly to the content, and to each other.
How do I know this? As a Voice Over talent of more than 20 years standing, I have observed and experienced the best and the worst of production, both in my particular corner of content creation, and in the larger media and entertainment ecosystem.
What sighted audiences expect by default is not yet granted to blind and visually impaired audiences, and there are simply too many in this community to continue accepting absent or sub-par AD, when it comes to their content experience. That’s why I created the ADNA, and why Kevin’s Way exists.
As a production and parity consultant, I’ve found gaps in many areas – specifically in series and film. (now AD is a part of many visual experiences and content; but the microfocus on TV and Film can spill over to other areas.) And this kind of entertainment AD is more than just information. It’s the immersion. And sadly the only consistent blind audience entertainment deliverable to-date? has been *unreliable* quality of experience.
For more than a decade – through meetings, professional collaborations, studies, and through social media engagement – I strategically shifted the message away from cheap AD to great AD, illustrating to audiences and organizations the value of quality, and what that means.
While audiences were advocating justifiably for “more AD”, a growing group of my colleagues were joining me in demanding “better AD”.
As Satauna mentioned, credits matter. Several years ago, I established The ADNA as a database of audio description professionals – strategically beginning with voice talents, as this role is the easiest to get on board with. We’ve expanded to more roles. It helps hinge the conversations around which talents are doing things that work or don’t work for our audiences (writing, voicing, editing, and more).
I created the ADNA Presents podcast, interviewing over 150 professionals, sighted and blind, who share the nuanced approach of what quality and excellence means.
Earlier this year, the kindle book, “The ADNA Presents: Volume 1” was released, featuring a collection of insightful interviews with top voice over talent, exploring the potential of, and need, for this sector.
During my Keynote address at the 2020 ACB banquet, I introduced our audiences to what quality and excellence means, beyond simply “having AD”. I shared the results of years of study, experimentation, work, and discoveries. Most organizations hadn’t tactically parsed the many roles in AD, let alone considered including blind professionals in the work. Since my presentation, some AD companies are now publicly talking about hiring blind professionals.
As a member of the TV Academy, home of the primetime Emmy awards, I served on the executive committee of the Performers’ Peer Group. Last year, after pushing for a number of years, I succeeded in securing eligibility for AD narrators to join the prestigious organization, using their AD TV credits. As blind professionals do this work, it opens more space for what normally is a near-impossible qualification for disabled talent.
More producers still need to be exposed to this work. So, I produced “How Blind People Watch TV”: an event, featuring Melody, Sara Herrlinger of Apple, and other colleagues to help producers and others understand this work. This important and dare I say entertaining discussion is now just a video link away, on the TV Academy’s website.
I am a Voice-Over talent, and a producer, and an ally. Just as I expect to be properly remunerated for my professional work, and properly credited for my accomplishments, I understand that we each have a tireless obligation to lift one another up, especially where representation is not in evidence.
As a member of SAG-AFTRA, I collaborated with the Guild’s Performers with Disabilities Committee and SAG Awards to bring live AD to the show for the first time ever. I further insisted on not only including but crediting blind talent as AD announcers. I asked for a press release to promote the Guild’s requirement that all digital screeners include AD. I brought Proctor and Gamble in as a sponsor, a visionary brand that took advantage of the connection to feature a Tide commercial with AD during the show. While some of the objectives we set for this pioneering accomplishment were not able to be fully leveraged (through no fault of SAG Awards or the voice talents who announced), the victories we *were* able to realize led to establishing AD as a truly enriching part of this organization’s celebration.
Last year, I produced AD for an Oscar-nominated documentary with an all-blind audio description team of leaders, literally modeling blind representation in every role of AD. While we faced concerns from both sighted and blind audiences and organizations, wondering “how a blind person writes AD.” feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and created more curiosity, in the best way possible.
Over 3 years ago, I founded the Audio Description discussion group on Facebook along with my dear friend Kevin – with over 2100 lively members and their active engagements, the focus of quality and excellence in AD remains a guiding force in audio description.
I also coach blind and sighted voice talents in Audio Description, focusing on the nuance of the performance, and the need to recognize that … the creative intent expressed by the writer of the film or series, marshalled by the producer, guided by the director, and realized by the actors, must no less be manifest in every single role of Audio Description. Otherwise, the result is compromised.
Parity inc. was created to address the potholes and speedbumps in AD, to smooth the ride for opportunity on audiences by specifically highlighting the benefits of hiring blind pros. Through this venture, I developed a reliable workflow, as well as a mark that quality is indeed guaranteed. SPI introduced Kevin’s Way: a new measure of excellence for previously marginalized content users. This provides an immediate indication that the AD experience will be in parity to sighted audiences, and of course includes blind professional talents in the adjudication.
With these relationships, connections, and introductions, AD has grown. And much of the focus is on inclusion of blind talents, as well as quality. We now have a system that works; that can guarantee, with accountability, that the quality of AD can match the intent (creatively) of original content creators.
This isn’t charity, nor is it compliance. The advertising side of this equation is even more important, from an economic perspective, when you consider how Blind audiences commit to brands.
When discovering a streaming channel or studio or production company putting out product wherein the entertainment and AD content match in quality, our audiences lock themselves in. With all the inconsistencies, it’s a relief! It is far easier to secure blind and low vision audience loyalty, and hard to shake off. For sighted audiences, it remains an expensive and elusive goal to secure the attention, let alone loyalty. That said, if you put out crap, anyone will bail. Our audio description discussion group has regularly shared this inescapable truism.
So with AD – vo talents, writers, engineers, editors, quality control professionals, and distributors can share – and be compensated for – their best work. And this … leads to the immersive experiences our audiences absolutely deserve.
To be clear, as talents are brought in, the quality of output for our blind audiences will meet the standard that each production has already established.
And if I could be so bold, if any aspect of the AD is any less than the elements of production, that … is … lack of access. It is yet another form of discrimination. And blind talents in all aspects of AD is an essential aspect of matching these production elements.
I’ve been lucky and privileged to have accomplished much in my career, and I’m grateful for my successes. There is so much more that can be done, though. Alone, we can certainly go so far. Together, we can go further than ever imagined before. It’s time for us to work together.
I’m eager to sit down with production and studios to explain and explore in mutually beneficial fashion. These innovations are paving the way for more professionals who absolutely must contribute to this AD work. And as we’ve heard countless times, particularly yesterday and today: this inclusion drives innovation in AD and all workspaces.
But back to AD specifically. The goal is dual – requiring AD *is* essential, but also ensuring AD is recognized in the film industry and business, which leads to economic justification and value. (Again, I’m eager to explore offline). In the choice of quality vs shitty vs nothing, let’s choose quality.