Access is in the Air


By: Catherine Kudlick

Like the whiff of California's early spring blossoms, access for blind people is in the air. After last fall's red carpet launch, we have exciting news of Pixar's audio description for all Disney films; thanks to an app, blind people can now follow mainstream releases with along with everyone else.

Last month also brought Stevie Wonder's viral video taunting his colleagues at the Grammys about not reading Braille. More awesome still was his plea: "We need to make every single thing accessible to every single person with a disability." This must be the first-ever celebrity call for disabled people's rights on a world stage.

And then there was my heart-stopping moment during Sunday's Oscars when I - along with a number of followers on social media - could have sworn we had heard audio description. Watching with my 88-year-old mother who also benefited, I hooted, I tweeted, I bolted from my chair to dance a little jig: they're describing the visual content of movies, not just on national TV, but on the premier movie show. Our hopes were soon dashed as normal life returned - the descriptions had been used to showcase the fine art of script writing for the best screenplay award.

Yet something in my universe had turned upside down. Because of Pixar and Stevie Wonder, it was possible not just to dream of audio description as a possibility but to imagine it, even feel it as something real.

The work of accessibility is just beginning. Some needs are quite basic: a quarter century after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), audio description for movies, plays and other performance is far less common than close captioning for deaf and hard of hearing, to the point where even my mother conflated them in her head.

And despite the passage of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act too much of the Internet remains off-limits to blind and low-vision users, while the new world of phone apps is hit or miss. Sometimes newly designed environments even get worse with more animation and smaller, greyer fonts. Many blind people I know avoid thinking of how fragile our tech ecosystem is; one seemingly innocuous update could end it in an instant.

This is why we must build upon the interventions of giants like Pixar and Stevie Wonder to push for access on every front. Access needs to be so woven into the everyday fabric of everything that it would be unthinkable to imagine a world without it. Consider how unthinkable it would be to undo all the curb cut-outs for wheelchairs and apply this to the electronic environment.


If you're a scholar, consider joining the accessible books initiative. If you're not, spread the word about accessible film options for blind people and older people who love movies but who may have stopped going because of missing out. If your local theater offers nothing, ask them why, and casually mention that it's increasingly part of the law.
And if you have any pull in the tech or film worlds, share the news: exciting creative possibilities for access are already here. Pages that build in access need not be clunky or ugly. At the Superfest: International Disability Film Festival that we co-host with SF LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, some of the most interesting film breakthroughs are thanks to directors building this feature in for everyone. And Longmore Lecturer Joshua Miele's Video Description Research and Development Center project crowd-sources audio description.

Sure, my Oscar hopes were dashed this year, but I saw a future that spoke to me in a clear voice: access is in the air and worth everyone's time.