Delightful and Descriptive, Honor Among Thieves: My Experience with Descriptive Video Service in a Movie Theater

Last year I wrote about the history and impact of descriptive video services, an accessibility feature available on some movies and tv shows. Watching broadcast or streamed content with friends or on my own has been enhanced by the addition of creative, voiced scripts added to the content for the purpose of making visual elements more meaningful to blind viewers. Recently I got the chance to try out this feature in a movie theater.

Previously, my movie-going experience involved me leaning over to nudge my husband or friend in the hopes of eliciting a couple of hints about the action that the dialogue and sound effects couldn’t provide. My husband once told me he would prefer to see movies once before seeing them with me so he could do a better job of describing them for me. Now, that isn’t entirely necessary!

I say “not entirely” because this service isn’t yet widely implemented in many areas. I only found out about it being available, let alone available in my home town, a couple of months ago. You can read more about the history, technological requirements, and implementation/availability laws here on the Audio Description Project’s website.

Due to the rising cost of tickets and the diminished enjoyment I got out of movies, my husband and I haven’t been big movie-goers for a while. But we’re both avid D&D players, so when my husband saw that the new D&D movie was being shown with what our local theater calls “Descriptive narration” (nobody can agree on what it’s called, apparently) he booked our tickets and requested an assistive audio device along with pre-ordering our snacks and reserving our seats. Here’s how it worked, and my thoughts on the experience.

The Preview

When we arrived at the theater we went to guest services and told them that we needed a descriptive audio device, which movie, what time, and which screen we’d be viewing it on. They didn’t have it at the desk so the associate called someone to bring it up. When it arrived, the lady started explaining how to use it to my husband.

“Excuse me, but since I’m the one using it, maybe you could explain how to use it to me?” I interjected, lifting my cane a little to emphasize the point.

Without missing a beat, the woman turned to me and started in on the same explanation. I reached out and let my fingers follow her words across the device, relieved that her ableism was behavioral, not ideological. She hadn’t thought I was incapable of operating the device, she just hadn’t thought. That’s the easy kind to deal with.

It was a pretty simple device, too. I was holding a pair of Bluetooth headphones with two channel wheels, one on either earpiece. One of them, the lady explained, controlled the movie audio Input which would come through the left earpiece.. The wheel on the right controlled the volume of the descriptive audio track. I could balance them as I pleased. There wouldn’t be descriptive audio for the previews, she said somewhat apologetically. I don’t mind; that’s less important to me, though I do think it ought to be available on principle.

The Show

First things first: it was a GREAT D&D movie. Funny, clever, balanced, and well-produced, it was everything you look for in a fun campaign with friends. The soundtrack fit perfectly, the character motivations were believable, and it nestled nicely into known places and events within the Forgotten Realms. 10/10

I also learned that the actor playing the sorcerer intentionally learned the American Sign Language words for the names of the spells he cast, and used those as his casting gestures. Nice touch, Justice Smith.

Now for the main event.

When watching a described movie or tv show at home, the experience is pretty seamless. The tracks are dynamically balanced so that the background music and effects are softened when description is voiced. Sometimes they’re a little quieter than I would like; I really enjoy analyzing soundtracks. But mostly, I have no difficulty hearing dialogue, music, effects, and description as they all work together to produce an immersive audio-play.

Of course, things worked a little differently at the movie theater.

Instead of the tracks being balanced automatically, i took over that task and did it manually. When I felt there was less description and more dialogue, I flicked the description track wheel down. When there was a lot of action and less talking, I would lower the volume of the movie track and turn up the description.

Sometimes I even found myself turning the movie track off entirely, letting the muted thunder of the theater’s main speakers penetrate the earpiece.

Having that kind of control was kind of fun. And it meant that the movie theater experience wasn’t nearly as over-stimulating as I’ve found it to be in the past. Instead of feeling like my whole body was buffetted by explosive sound or pierced by higher pitches, I could really dive into what was going on, and I felt less “full of noise” as we walked out.

I can see how some people might find having to manually balance two audio tracks distracting and irritating, though. If you just want to sit back, relax, and be swept away this isn’t the way to do it. And if you’re an audio quality snob of any kind, you’ll probably have a hard time getting over the occasional faint static that comes with turning put the volume on the descriptive audio track to its higher settings.

Critical Acclaim

Overall, I found it to be a positive experience. For once, I didn’t feel like I was lagging behind on the action, or bothering anyone else for help keeping up. I joined in whole-audience laugh-out-loud moments, enjoyed my new-found sense of control, and felt more relaxed and independent.

As I said earlier, I also felt less over-stimulated, so it improved my whole experience, not just the accessibility. The headset was comfortable, easy to get, and easy to use. I will definitely be doing this again, whenever its available.

Today your favorite blindfluencer asks “What role have you played in recent years that gave you the most satisfaction?”

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