How do Blind People Watch Movies?

May the Fourth be with you!

First, a special shout-out to Caylah Coffeen, whose genius has helped me design and operate this blog, market my book, and who inspired today’s topic. She was a Star Wars Day baby, and is ready and eager to put her amazing marketing, design, and editing skills at your disposal. Check out her work at Creative Cornerstones. Happy birthday, Caylah!

Now, watch this.

Yes, I know, it’s not Star Wars. I tried really hard to find a good clip of a Star Wars movie with DVS, but failed. I hope the baby lion cub at least makes up for the absence of baby Yoda…at least a little!

What’s DVS, you ask? That’s the narration you heard over the movie clip, the female voice describing the scene so blind and visually impaired viewers like me can enjoy movies and tv shows more thoroughly. The technology has existed for 30 years, the idea’s floated around since the 1960’s, and it is one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets that really shouldn’t be a secret.

DVS: Descriptive Video Service, a secondary audio program or track layered onto the original production to provide narration of key visual elements of a movie or broadcast media for the purpose of improving accessibility for viewers who are blind or visually impaired.

“Viewers” who are blind or visually impaired…I love the irony there!

The first time I encountered the concept was middle school, in the early 2000’s. My mom brought home a VHS from the library. It was a Star Trek: The Original Series movie, but I can’t recall which one. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to hear the dialogue, sound effects, and sound track over the narration, but the narration was timed so perfectly it disrupted nothing.

One of the most frequent questions I get from new friends, coworkers, and random strangers is “can you watch movies?” or “how can you watch TV if you’re blind?”

This question is usually one part genuine curiosity and one part honest concern that I am left out of the massive amounts of social interaction built around audio-visual media like movies and shows. I appreciate both angles of this question. Nobody likes to be left out, so it’s an easy way to empathize withs someone whose experience  might otherwise be very foreign. And, well, accessibility is just a cool topic. So, let’s get into it!

Yes, I like watching movies, and I have done far, far too much Netflix binging. I even enjoy going to movie theaters and drive-through or park theater experiences. Some of my favorite childhood memories involve creative and bizarre family interactions around watching movies together. My parents even moved our TV screen and DVD player outside so we could watch movies all piled on the trampoline on warm summer nights!

But that one Star Trek movie was my only experience with DVS until 2019, 2020ish.

 There just weren’t a lot of titles available, they were hard to find, and awareness of availability was, at least for me, nonexistent. Ironically, menus on DVDs that might allow someone to turn on DVS aren’t voiced over. Until streaming apps I’d never been able to watch anything by myself.

 Imagine you decided to read a book, but the book inly included dialogue and dialogue tags, Luke said “May the force be with you,” or “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi!” she cried). No description of action or rooms or thoughts. Just dialogue.  It’d be hard to keep up with the story, wouldn’t it? You can put a lot of context in dialogue, but not enough.

This is the closest to my movie-watching experience that I can get you. I have a slight advantage over this example because sound tracks, sound effects, and the sounds of people moving on set (walking, picking up cups, dogs barking, cars honking) gives me more contextual information. But the world is still pretty blank, and I miss a lot

“I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . . .

CS Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms

In the past, my parents would sometimes pause what we were watching to ask if I had followed a particular sequence of events, then describe it to me. Over time I learned that I could speak up and ask people to do this for me. Most people were very willing, and a few even started providing ongoing whispered DVS they improvised from their own experiences.

I like going to movies with friends. I enjoy coming together to discuss something we’ve all seen independently, be it a book, a play, a movie, or a show. And those in my life have demonstrated they find their enjoyment of things diminished if they can’t share them with me. They go to great and sometimes hilarious lengths to make this happen, which speaks love to me at high volume.

My favorite instance of this happened when my college roommate and I attended a simulcast opera at a local movie theater. The opera was Hamlet, and of course it was sung in German, but the simulcast included English subtitles so viewers could follow along. My roommate and I sat in the back of a sparsely populated theater where she could whisper the translations to me. But halfway through he got bored.

Somewhere during the second act Hamlet’s political drama turned into a Facebook drama revolving around the old Farmville game. We had a very hard time containing our giggles!

In the year 2000 the United States government introduced legislation to require a percentage of broadcast media to include described content. You can read the very thorough Wikipedia articles on the legal history of required audio description Here and Here. Suffice it to say, the requirements are token efforts that faced surprising push-back.

But when you have a company like Disney that basically prints its own money and has a soft spot for people with disabilities, you end up with me re-watching dozens of old favorite movies to see what new layers of detail and intrigue I can glean from the amusing, dramatic, and intricate scripts woven into the original content.

Many of my sighted friends who watch movies and TV with me now say they enjoy content more with DVS because of how creative the scripts can be. Sometimes it can get a little awkward, like watching Bridgerton with a friend But even awkwardness has its uses. I’m asexual, so that added another layer to our experience, and the scripts were very tasteful..

Many people worry, like I did, that the script will be distracting. I’ve watched a few Marvel and Star Wars movies where the narrators seemed amazed by everything they were saying. And I still lose a little bit of context because there’s just not enough time to describe everything. During the iconic tower fight in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings the main character picked up “a golden skull with rabbit ears” to use as an improvised weapon. Without any description of the fight club’s décor…this made NO sense.

But at the end of the movie the narrator described hundreds of colored lanterns floating over a lake, with the Great Protector swimming around beneath. I could imagine that perfectly, and my experience of the ending of that movie would have been sorely diminished without an invitation to share that hopeful memorial.

DVS is still not very common. I have yet to encounter it on safety videos like on air planes, training presentation videos at NASA, the DoD, continuing education platforms like Relias for healthcare professionals, and many video presentations at museums around the country, yet a quick google search revealed dozens of companies of various sizes that can be hired to produce professional descriptive audio tracks for any sort of video content.

YouTube even presented me with an ad for live description services. I’m not entirely sure how that would work, but I’m curious. If you’ve tried it, let me know in the comments below.

While much of Disney Plus’s content has DVS, it’s still a rare treat to find it on streamed tv shows and movies not aimed at younger audiences. I long for a DVS cut of Lord of the Rings, and I’d pay good money for shows like Stargate, Downton Abbey, Leverage, Madam Secretary, and Gargoyles to incorporate DVS.

Mostly, though, I crave being filled with a story, and the awareness that my fraction of its interpretation fits into the whole of human experience. I want to add my voice to a complex symphony of laughter and critique that yields insight and intimacy.

Today your favorite blindfluencer invites you to explore the dark side. Try turning on DVS for a favorite movie or show – assuming you can find it . Maybe even try turning off your screen and just listening. Then hare your experience with me and a friend!

2 thoughts on “How do Blind People Watch Movies?

  1. A friend of mine is blind and since we’re both huge fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation, we’ve watched many episodes together when he’s come to visit. So I do my best to describe to him what’s going on.
    I remember being surprised when I’d mention where the current scene is, and he would tell me he already knew because of the sound effects. This is one thing this show does very well: all the main locations on the Enterprise have their own unique sounds, whether it’s the thrumming of the warp core or the particular hiss of Ten Forward’s doors opening. It’s made me pay a little more attention to audio cues in what I watch.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not at all surprised to hear that about Star Trek, given their history of inclusivity. And now that you mention it, I realize I do have a much easier time following episode of the various seasons much better than most shows. Amazing how we can take sound scapes for granted!


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