AD Spotlight: Heart Cinema

Audio describers all over the world are making advances in their craft every day. The ‘Spotlight’ blog series draws attention to individuals who are advancing AD through their practice, industry, and activism.

Image: A Disney animation plays on a television and a man with a microphone describes what is happening on screen.

In this post we focus on the rise of audio description in China, where volunteers, local governments, and filmmakers have been working to increase the accessibility of cinema for all.

As this recent article explains, Heart Cinema in Beijing is an example of such progress in action; providing live audio description for all its films.

“Founded in 2005, Heart Cinema is reportedly the first cinema of this kind. Volunteer narrators introduce, describe, and explain unidentifiable information such as characters, movements, and scenes between lines to help the visually impaired understand the movies.

More than a decade later, more and more young people are volunteering and helping to expand the service to other cities in China and online.”

Lu Zhao

Similar audio description hubs have arisen in the cities of Shanghai, Wuxi, and Kunming, where volunteers perform live audio description each week and sometimes provide recorded tracks.

The demand for these services is increasing. According to China’s Association for the Blind, there are 17.31 million people with visual impairment in the country, which is 20.36% of China’s total disabled population.

Of course, live audio describing is not a simple task. Liu Tong has volunteered at Heart Cinema for nine years. As she explains to Zhau, many hours of preparation go into her performance:

She used to take months preparing for a film. Liu’s first script was for Lan, a 2009 autobiographical film directed by Chinese actress Jiang Wenli. It took her half a year to finish the script. Now, after 63 narrations, she can get ready in four days.

Lu Zhau

As awareness of audio description and its benefits spreads, there is hope that more services, funding, and tools will become available. The potential for collaboration with the film industry is also an area of great potential in China, as in Australia.

“Accessible films should not only be a public welfare action, but also a part of film and television production.”

Han Dongxue, CEO of Yier Information Technology

Ultimately, access to cinema is about much more than simple entertainment or commerce. As one viewer explains, being able to access films has transformed his life:

A vision-impaired Chinese man speaks to the camera. Closed Caption translation: "After I began to know a movie in this way..."
The vision-impaired man continues to speak to the camera, now smiling. Closed Caption translation: "I began to feel that my life is worth living.""

AD Spotlight: Shakila Maharaj

Audio describers all over the world are making advances in their craft every day. The ‘Spotlight’ blog series draws attention to individuals who are advancing AD through their practice, industry, and activism.

A poster promoting Shazacin Movie Night in colaboration with the Alliance Française on October 6th, 2021. Text gives address and states "Special Screening of the South African classic - now with audio description! - eLollipop (1975)."
ShazaCin Movie Night poster

Our first featured audio describer is Shakila Maharaj from South Africa. As reported by Frank Chemaly for The Independent, Maharaj is a trained audio describer, app developer, and avid movie fan working to improve and develop AD as a viable industry. Thanks to her, this month saw the launch of a full audio description track for the classic South African film e’Lollipop (1975), directed by Ashley Lazarus.

With funding from SmartXchange, Maharaj has worked with a team to develop an audio description app. “We’re doing everything ourselves,” she explains, “from creating the descriptions, to voicing them and recording them, to synchronising them with the movie.” Maharaj is hoping to distribute and expand this tool in a way that can assist people consuming and producing audio description.

“We need to remember there are 50 million blind people in Africa and one million in South Africa, and that doesn’t look at ageing people with visual impairment. Research shows there are many people for whom [AD] enhances their enjoyment.

“We’re creating a whole new industry, a whole new market, so we’re busy creating a lot of awareness, awareness for blind people themselves, awareness in the film and television industry.”

Shakila Maharaj

In the following video, Maharaj discusses audio description in a presentation for the Brussels World Summit on Accessible Tourism: Destinations for All 2018.

Introducing Audio-only Social Media

Close up photograph of a smartphone with the words 'Clubhouse drop-in Audio' on the screen and a waving hand emoji. The phone lies on a keyboard, beside a pair of headphones.
Image by Boumen Japet via Shutterstock

Alongside Audio Description, on this blog we have often highlighted the increasing popularity of audio in general. For example, Australia’s recent audio festival and the practice of ‘audiobooking’ Netflix shows.

This trend appears to have spread to social media, as a recent ABC article explores the growth of audio-only platform Clubhouse in the context of the pandemic.

Clubhouse is a drop-in audio chat hub that describes itself as “a new type of social network based on voice—where people around the world come together to talk, listen and learn from each other in real-time.” Currently invite-only, the platform has been gaining momentum as more and more people join up.

In an age of working from home, where furniture outlets are selling fake bookshelves to make people look good on Zoom calls, audio-only is a relief.

James Purtill

Curtin digital anthropologist Crystal Abidin is interviewed in the article, likewise noting that the lack of visuals is actually a selling point for this new social platform:

“Clubhouse came about and said, ‘Hey, this is audio only. No need for video — we’re only going to hear your voice […] It feels like Clubhouse is taking away from all that Zoom fatigue.”

To learn more, read the ABC article here.

We will continue to follow the ongoing evolutions of audio on this blog. If any of you are lucky enough to score an invite to Clubhouse, please share your experiences in the comments below!

Online Piracy, Deviance and Audio Description

A person in a dark hat and trench coat peers down at two computer monitors. They are wearing a white mask, hiding their identity. The room is dark, and smoke floats in the air.
CC image by Brian Klug

For people with disability, living on the edges of deviance can be a daily experience and often an unintended consequence of their identity.

The relationship between entertainment industries and the disability community is fraught at best. People with disability continue to be blocked from easy and ready access to entertainment materials despite widespread legislation at both national and international levels to ensure inclusivity and accessibility.

Paul Harpur and Nicolas Suzor affirm that “there are over 129 million book titles in the world, but persons with print disabilities can obtain less than 7 per cent of these titles in formats that they can read.” (Read more in their article: Copyright Protections and Disability Rights.)

Copyright law has been crucial in enabling and blocking access to materials for people with sight impairment.

Special accommodation must be made for a print-based text to be converted into an accessible format for people with disabilities. In 1996, the United States introduced an amendment to enable copyrighted material to be converted into an accessible format. In 1997 a similar act was introduced into Canada. There is no comparable statute in Australia.

Harpur, Suzor and Thampapillai affirm that “there is no broad exception in Australia for reproductions made by or on behalf of a person with a print disability, but there is a statutory licensing scheme contained within Pt VB of the Copyright Act” that allows for an institution operating on their behalf to produce these texts. (Read more in their article: Digital Copyright and Disability Discrimination.)

Importantly, in an age of global entertainment media and international markets items are not transferable to other markets. A text converted under United States law may not be permitted to be sold outside of its national borders. This is particularly discriminatory in the era of the sharing economy and the rise of digital transferable content and social media sites, which have proven to be of great use in the sharing of information and resources among the disability community.

Continue reading “Online Piracy, Deviance and Audio Description”

Another useful ‘Life Hack’: Mainstream Reporting on Audio Description

image of a woman wearing headphones
CC image by Audio-Technica

Earlier this year, Lifehacker published an interesting article by Emily Price that highlights the potential mainstream benefits of audio description. It goes beyond traditional stationary television ‘viewing’ to consider the role of audio description in an increasingly mobile digital world.

Sure, you’ve heard of binge-watching shows on Netflix, but how about binge listening?

Netflix has a category of programs that it offers audio descriptions for, where a voiceover explains to you what characters are doing in a scene. With it you can listen to shows rather than watch them, essentially transforming them into something like an audiobook or podcast you can stream while you’re out for a walk or when you’re in bed at night trying to fall asleep.

Price explains that:

I’ve tried it out with a few shows and the descriptions are actually pretty great. Stranger Things may have just become the soundtrack to my morning dog walks.

You can read the full article here.

This is not the first time mainstream media have framed audio description as a ‘life hack’ for a mainstream audience. Inspired by a reddit thread on the topic, Mathew Dunn wrote similarly about audio description in late 2017. To quote Dunn’s article:

In essence, the feature will turn Netflix content into an audiobook so you can keep up with your favourite shows and movies even if you can’t sit down to watch them.

This ‘hack’ was also featured in articles on websites like FHM and Brobible.

Somewhat predictably, FHM frames audio description as a sneaky way to enjoy your favourite shows and films when you are supposed to be doing other things.

We’re not suggesting you do this every day, but should there be a time (or two) during the week when you’re particularly hungover (or simply don’t give a crap about your career) and you want to distract yourself from the bleak reality of office life, we’ve got the perfect way to do it: Netflix audiobooks!

In comparison, Connor Toole presents audio description as both practical and healthy:

As someone with a slightly unhealthy addiction to technology, I’m usually staring at some sort of screen at virtually every point in the day.

[…] I spend a fair amount of time in the kitchen at night. While some people might decide to use music for background noise, I prefer to throw on a TV show from a bingeable series to distract myself.

Articles like these suggest there is a huge potential demand for audio description among general television fans, people who are busy, active viewers, and people who just need a rest from screens.

Australian TV well behind in accessibility for vision impaired

profile of girl listening to headphones
CC image by Jeremy Hiebert

Curtin Research Stories recently featured an article by Daniel Jauk on the subject of audio description in Australia. Associate Professors Katie Ellis and Mike Kent were both interviewed as part of this important discussion. An excerpt is quoted below:

More than 453,000 Australians are known to live with blindness or vision impairment. Despite this substantial number, Australia remains the only English-speaking OECD country in the world that doesn’t require its broadcasters or streaming services to provide audio description.

Most English-speaking countries introduced such mandatory legislation at least 10 years ago. In addition, according to Article 30 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – Australia is required to ensure people with disabilities can “enjoy access to television programmes, films … and other cultural activities, in accessible formats.”

Australia’s unique deficiencies in this regard are highlighted in the article:

“We really missed opportunities when we transitioned from analogue to digital television,” says Associate Professor Mike Kent, the Acting Head of Curtin’s School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Enquiry.

Associate Professor Katie Ellis explains. “The UK, for example, mandated standards for audio description as part of their digital transition, even though they didn’t have audio description in place yet. There was a policy that after a channel had been transmitting digitally for five years, they would need to offer 10 per cent of their programs with audio description. We didn’t do that in Australia.”

The story goes on to examine the Australian context in more detail.

Read the full article here.