Audio Description International
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
March 23-24, 2002
Speaker - Charlie Crawford , Executive Director, American Council of the Blind
Charlie Crawford is introduced by Joel Snyder.
Charlie Crawford: It's Sunday and there's a podium, oh boy!
What he forgot to say is, "A handsome man approaches the podium ... followed by a little black dog eating crumbs off the floor." [laughter]
Thank you so much for inviting me to join with you this afternoon and do a little bit of talking about the art of Audio Description. Clearly, it's something that has taken root in our country and in the world and slowly but surely is not only being appreciated by folks with the inability to see what's going on but also, I think, becoming somewhat of an expectation. I think that's the issue that we want to talk about this afternoon: the notion of what constitutes an expectation of Audio Description. Maybe a way of introducing that is to tell you that last night my wife Sue and I were home and we decided that after listening to Garrison Keillor (because every blind person in the world has to listen to Garrison Keillor) we'd watch a little TV. I turned on something that was one of these modern stories that was too graphic and stark for me so I sort of melted into American Movie Classics. The point there is that we could not necessarily make a totally informed choice between which TV program to watch only because we had to guess at what was going on the screen. Now, that may be a bit academic in talking with a bunch of people who are familiar with Audio Description for the blind but it clearly is the nub of the issue. The choices that we have in life are limited by those facilities around us which either hinder or help us expedite around own choices. If we are to make those choices in a way which is honest, in a way which is informed, and a fully voluntary choice, then we have to do that with the information we need to make a good decision.
The only way we're going to get there is Audio Description when it comes to television, when it comes to art, when it comes to museums, when it comes to any number of the activities that all people in this society take for granted; yet blind people are chronically left to guess what's in our environment rather than mastering the environment we live in. That's a heavy burden for us as a community to bear and a heavy responsibility for those of you who have taken on the challenge of developing video description or audio description as a way of servicing our community. Believe me, we appreciate it. [applause]
It all started a long time ago. A dark and stormy night, remember that? [laughter] I was talking to Cindy (she's my assistant) before I came here, it was on Thursday, I guess, and I said, "Y'know, they've got me down here from 12: 30 to 1: 45. I better start when I was a baby because I don't have that much to say." But thank God you guys were a little late. The other good thing is that it's just after lunch, everybody had their cookies and in about ten minutes, everybody'll be asleep anyway, right? The fact of the matter is that video description started a long time ago and Margaret can tell you that. She certainly pioneered the whole effort. When I was Commissioner in Massachusetts in 1985, a guy by the name of Barry Cronin came to visit. Barry said, "Well, let's go have some lunch." Sure, I'll take a free lunch. (Don't tell the Ethics Commission that.) So we went to Brigham's. Brigham's in Massachusetts is kind of a Friendly's, y'know. You can't get caught on an ethics charge at Brigham's, I'll tell ya that. So we sat down and we were talking and he said, "I had this concept to introduce you to and it's called video description or described video." And he then explained what it was all about. And I said "Y'know, that's one of the best ideas I've ever heard of." And it was so simple. And yet only until ... only at 1985 were we really at a point in the history of the development of the technology so that we could deliver a service such as that through the Secondary Audio Programming channel on television.
Barry Cronin was a man of vision. He really had it in his heart not only to promote this intellectually novel idea but also to forward that idea through the process of making it something that was a nationally recognized art form so that people who are blind would be able to enjoy television. In the early days, it was very difficult to convince anybody that this was something new. I mean, this was something good because most of them saw it as something of an oddity. "Take your Daughter Out to Lunch Once A Year," still in that category, if not, "Feed the Goldfish."
At any rate, as time went by, Barry was very successful with the assistance of the Commission for the Blind in Massachusetts and others in garnering a group of more and more people who were willing to go out and to be advocates, to actually talk about it in a positive fashion -- Audio Description. To make it something that was not only respectable, but something desired. To make it something beyond the ideology of a kook into the reality of television. He, and others such as those like Margaret here in Washington, the American Foundation for the Blind, the Blinded Veterans Administration and on and on and on -- all those efforts began to crystallize in the idea that maybe we could make this really work.
We began with public television. Now, public television. Everybody knows about y'know, who watches public television? Alright, c'mon, c'mon ... I talked to a guy I met a guy here in Washington a year and a half ago and I introduced myself and he said "Well, I'm so and so from public television." And I said, "Oh, y'know, I love NOVA." And he said, "You say that, but nobody ever watches it." So I decided that before I came here, today, I needed to watch something on public television. Esoteric as it is, my wife and I finished our carrots and celery and our finest wine, sat down before the television, and immediately turned on the only channel on our television which is public TV. Audio describers, listen up. Here's what I heard about, and I challenge you to describe it: The scene was a Far East country named Thailand and the subject was the sex life of moths. [laughter] You take it from there. [laughter] It was great. I thought to myself, "They'll love this tomorrow." [laughter] But anyway, you'll be glad to know that the female moth, the perfume that they produce, can go miles and attract any male moth in the area. Even, I guess they even get around the flames to get to her. Anyway, enough of that.
The point is it started in public television because that was probably the most receptive area we were going to find to be able to use audio description in a broadcast model. Fortunately, there are great numbers of people in public TV who actually do believe that the audience is important enough to make sure that whatever it is they're presenting to them they fully have options to understand and to utilize in their lives. So public TV was the pioneer for video description. And we watched and watched and watched. We watched American Playhouse. We watched Masterpiece Theater. We watched NOVA. God, we became educated, I'll tell ya. But the reality is that that was a great set of programs. As time went on, audio or video description moved out to the actual videocassettes and movies. Y'know, there was a time when one or two movies a year would be produced with video description. Today, it's looking more like one or two movies a month. Within a couple of years, I would say that the majority of movies will be video described. I didn't necessarily say worth watching, but video described.
That's a great accomplishment, it really is. But all along the way we knew that there was going to be a problem. The problem was as long as something is voluntary, if something is the right thing to do, the people who need to benefit from something are always going to be relying on somebody's sense of decency to do it. Now, that's a powerful motivator. But it's not enough. It's not enough when the industry responsible for providing the audio description or video description is an industry that counts the money first and audience second. It's not enough when an industry which is so embroiled in the notion of glamour, youth, and utmost physical capacity has to think about blind people? And it's not enough when an industry that is so large so as to count its money in the millions has to think about the notion of spending more money on something that they don't see as necessarily producing them the kind of money they're used to earning. On the way in here, I tried to think of an analogy and you know what came to me? Bill Gates complaining at the gas station about the price of a gallon of gas. I mean, to him? Heh! But to the guy who pumps the gas, it's important. To us, description is access. To the movies, it's a somewhat interesting but irrelevant phenomenon. You can see from that that these polarities needed to be bridged.
Now, the American Council of the Blind, as early as 1995, passed a resolution 95-01 -- see that, Kim, I remember -- in which we as an organization said that the movies have to become accessible. They have to have video description or audio description as soon as that can happen. It's a package. It's TV, it's movies, it's theater, it's all those places where people congregate to enjoy art and have a right to appreciate what art there is. For all it's worth. So we came together with other groups, such as Margaret's group, The Washington Ear, such as the American Foundation for the Blind, such as the Blinded Veterans Administration, WGBH/NCAM. We came together with all the groups,you guys too, and decided that we needed to develop a way to get video description recognized in the public discourse so that the policy of the United States would support it. It was not going to be an easy task and those of veterans here like Margaret, for example, will tell you that because they've been through it. It was not an easy task. It was constantly getting in touch with Congress people to try and get them to recognize the value of video description. We didn't get a mandate in the sense of an expressed mandate, which lawyers love to hear, that's expressed, it's right there in the law. We got an implicit mandate. It said we need to study the viability of video description. Now, there is a difference between an expressed and an implied mandate. It said we need to see if it's viable. Then there is an inherent expectation that if it is, we're going to do something positive about it. Otherwise, I would've never asked you to do it in the first place. The FCC took that rationale, coupled it with a demonstration of the need as produced by many organizations including ACB, and said we need to propose a rule that there will be at least some significant amount of television which is video described.
They proposed a rule. Oh my God. You should've seen the industry. It was like somebody told them that they were orphans. Suddenly, what? Video description? We can't afford that. It's the price of a coffee break at your movie production. What? Video Description. You can't do that, FCC, it's outside of your legal mandate. After all, you only have authority with respect to telecommunications in the public interest. God knows, the public interest is not served by having video description for blind people. Can't do it! Can't do it. You don't have the authority, it's not there in the law, there's no "expressed mandate."
And if that's not enough, you're compelling people to say things they're not meaning to say! They're not meaning to say. If I write a poem, let's write a poem. Um "I have a white tooth, I love you, Ruth." That's my daughter. Okay? Now--isn't it wonderful? I should publish it, right? [laughter] But anyway, we write this poem and somebody takes it and writes it down on paper. Now, tell me I told you this in an audible format. What business is it of theirs to put it down on paper? It alters the passage of what I'm saying, it changes the meaning. It's now something you can read instead of hear. Wait, there's more. (Sounds like one of those commercials: "Wait! There's more! SaladMaster! ...) Anyway ... We'll enlarge the print. We'll make it big. And if we make it big, people with low vision can read it. You can't do that. Not only did I just say the poem, I didn't write it down. Now, you're taking what you wrote down and making it into big print! Those people out there will never understand that poem. Come on. Get real. I think they've been in Hollywood too long. Is truth just what you ant it to be? Or is truth a matter of recognizing that when someone presents you with a logical argument that if you can't see the screen, it'd be helpful for somebody to describe what's going on, why don't you just believe it?!
Can't do that, we make too much money. If you started recognizing the truth, you might make less money. So there's the notion of compelled speech.
And there's the notion of it's outside the scope of your authority as a government agency to order. Anything else? Well, unfortunately, yes. [Sigh] Be diplomatic, Charlie, it's Palm Sunday. If I have a way of believing things, say I believe that all persons with dark brown hair have more intelligence than everyone else. And then I get a magazine. In that magazine, there are blondes, there are brunettesmy God, redheads! All kinds of different people there. And yet, maybe two or three of them have this dark brown hair. I found them! They will be the leaders of tomorrow! Even if one of them is a dog. [laughter] Now, you read through the magazine, lots of different stories, lots of different points of view, lots of contributions to society and on and on and on. You realize that it's a pretty silly ideology to think that somebody with dark brown hair is more superior to other people in terms of intelligence. And yet, if I hold to my credo, I hold to my ideology, the world will someday understand. Heh, sure. That's okay. That's just being crazy. But what happens when I take that point of view and I actually put it on paper and send it to the FCC. And worse yet, when I lose at the FCC, I put it on paper and send it to the court. Send it to the court. The Motion Picture Association of America in its complaint to the court appealing the FCC order says blind people don't want it anyway. Because this organization, dah, dah, dah, you can figure it out, says we don't need this. We've got our imaginations. Well, hot damn. [laughter] I tell ya, with my imagination, I could really figure out that Sherlock Holmes movie that they showed on the 'GBH radio. We don't need it! Not only do we have imaginations, but that's entertainment. We don't want entertainment, we want news! Oh my God. Imagine that, news junkies, 24 hours a day. What an organization! They get up in the morning and turn on news radio, can't live without it. Turn on the TV. What's that? Entertainment? Turn it off. I want news. I need news. Maybe this is a new addiction?
The problem there is clear. Somebody or some organization made up its mind that everyone else in the world is wrong and it's right and you can't have this on TV, because after all, it corrupts the view of sighted people toward blind people. Makes us into little puppets of the universe. Always supplicant. Always looking for some kind of succor from our TV. My God, I'm such a wreck! I don't know how I made it here today.
But yes, they made that argument, not quite in those terms, thank God. They made that argument in the court. Is anybody going to pay attention to them? I doubt it. But they did make the argument and the Motion Picture Association of America along with the National Association of Broadcasters and the National Cable Television Association all said, "Yup, yup, yup, they're right." They're right.
So here we are. A Notice of Proposed Rule Making. And then, a Rule. And then they ask for reconsiderations, a reconsideration of a Rule. Three times it has been tested and three times the FCC has spoken. And spoken out for audio description. The last time there was any real doubt in my mind that the FCC would have a problem was in the meeting with, I think her name was Susan Ness, Commissioner Ness. I don't remember if you were in that room, Margaret, I think you were. There was us, there was the industry, and there was the National Federation of the Blind. And I remember the discussion was kind of circular, in some ways very silly. The guy from cable TV says, "This is going to cost us too much money." Oh yeah? How much? "Well, I don't know. But we know there's a station out there and it's going to cost them $750,000 to do this. $750,000." So we said prove it. "Well, I can't do that." Well, when you can prove it, if you can prove it, maybe they can get off the hook because it's an undue burden. But the rest of the stations, where it's not going to cost anywhere near $750,000 can certainly comply. Well, that was the end of the cable TV's viewpoint. The Motion Picture Association, those people who care so much about the audience" "There aren't enough people watching it. Not worth the investment." We made the argument that this is a civil right. It's not about whether or not there are ten billion blind people out there waiting to go to your movie. It's about everybody who goes to your movie has a right to understand what it is. That's what it's about. Well, that was pretty much it for the motion picture people. That left the National Association of Broadcasters and I frankly can't remember what they said because it really wasn't all that good. [laughter] Of course, the Federation came in and they tried to tell us that they didn't need to know. Oh, it was something about, "I don't need to know about the Captain or somebody charging up to the parapet." So, I said, "Well, if you knew what flag they were carrying it might help you know who won the war."
[laughter / applause]
The problem is something so silly in many ways is ultimately so serious at the bottom line. Just as Friday, I'm sure you've already heard that the Motion Picture Association went to court and they're asking the court to stay the order of the FCC because the FCC has not acted upon their original request to have them stay their order. Maybe the reason they haven't acted on it is because all of us in this room have been in touch with the FCC and said "What?! You can't stay that order. We need it." During the week in which letters were required, ACB and our partners were able to generate 340 letters delivered to the FCC by hand. We got a receipt for it. When they couldn't find them, we said, "Here's what the receipt says." "Oh, we found 'em!" Just last Friday, we delivered another 136 letters and I suspect that by the end of two weeks we'll be well over 500 in terms of letters to the FCC advocating for audio description and that, my friends, is in sharp contrast to a call for the same amount of letters against audio description to my knowledge never materialized. Never materialized.
The blind community of the United States wants this and we want it now. The court will have to decide along the lines of the arguments I just pointed out to you, is there really compelled speech or is that just esoteric crap? Is the FCC within its scope or authority? If they rule that the FCC is not in its scope or authority, God help us, because there's a whole lot of laws out there, a whole lot of regulations, that rely upon that ancillary authority of the FCC. And finally, does the blind community not want it? We won't even go there. And I'm not going to tell you what's going to happen during the trial. Because I'm not giving any tips to the other side. But you know things will happen if ACB has anything to do with it, and we will.
The next steps: Here's the question all of us love to ask "What about me? Y'know I understand all this philosophical stuff and I'm glad that all blind people are happy but what about me? What am I supposed to do next? We come to this Conference, we elect a few officers, everybody's happy, we go home, do we forget about it?" No. No. The real important part of today's discussion is not about what we've done in the past. It's about the fact that we have planted the seed and it's taken many hands. We have nurtured the soil and it's taken many tears. And we have grown the flowers that have taken us by surprise and wonderment. And now it's time for the flowers to blossom. It's time for us to share audio description wherever it can be shared. To sing the song of what audio description is all about. To give blind people in our communities an opportunity to know about and use audio description in ways which will greatly enhance their lives. Most of you may have seen already the National Institutes of Health report, issued just last week, doubling the amount of blind people in the United States in the next twenty years. Doubling. That's a lot of business, guys. You'll be talking a lot. Hope you got some mouthwash. [laughter] And for some of these TV movies, you'll probably need it.
We need to figure out a strategy together that will bring audio and video description into the consciousness of people just as they think about closed captioning or they think about the public school system or they think about water coming out of the faucet. It has to be natural, it has to be real, it has to be something that people just accept as a natural order of things. Neither you nor the American Council of the Blind nor The Washington Ear, although I have great faith in Margaret's powers, can make that happen alone. Because it's not just something that benefits ACB, or Washington Ear, or you, it's something that benefits our blindness community directly because we hear and know what's going on and it benefits our society because it elevates our thinking to a plane where we really care about what goes on outside of our own skin. And it makes the dream of an American republic in which freedom of speech, true speech, shared with everybody for the purposes of people understanding what's going on, what's being conveyed to them, it makes that dream a reality. And when we see it in that context, it becomes much more easy for us to share it with others because it's not something we're asking for, it's something we're asking to share.
Let blind people come to work in the morning and talk about the same garbage that was on the TV last night as everyone else. [laughter / applause] Let us go to the theater, whether they be amateur theater, they be the local theater, they be Broadway, they be the Kennedy Center, let's have blind people go to those theaters and think about what's being portrayed in those plays, in those productions. And to leave the theater either totally happy or depressed, as most of these things make us, but at least leave the theater having been affected by what they saw because through your voice, they saw what they saw. That's the difference between a population of people who can only guess about its future and a population of people who knows where we're going because we've had the sharing with others to see the future and to make it happen for all of us. You will have opportunities when you get back to where you came from. And the movement is growing, it's not only in the US, it's Canada, it's England; blind people around the world are beginning to expect more than what we've had for thousands of years. Not as something we deserve because we're blind, but because we are a part of a society that we have just as much responsibility to give back to as to expect from.
I want to end this discussion; some discussion, I get to do all the talking, huh? [laughter] That's what's my kid says: "Alright, real discussion, Dad!" But I want to end this with a tribute to each and every one of you from all of us at the American Council of the Blind. We have fought, and we continue to fight, and we will never give up because we believe in a vision of ourselves and our country as one. But you have helped to prove that. It gets lonely sometimes, y'know? Gets lonely when you're out there talking to a traffic engineer about accessible pedestrian signals and they're looking at you like you've got three heads. And you say to yourself, "Why am I doing this? What does it really matter? I don't cross these streets here, I live in another town." Because one blind person in that community may someday cross that street. And because that one blind person has a right to cross that street with the same information that everybody else has and cross it safely, we do it. And we will always do it because if we don't do it, we will have given up on the very premise of our legitimacy that as a society we owe it to ourselves and each other to make this country better. And when you go back to your homes and your places, you can feel the pride of knowing that you have in your own way made this not only a better country for blind people but made it a better country for everyone.
[a standing ovation]
Keep it up and I'll sing.
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