Building an inclusive visual world: How audio description, alt text can aid the visually challenged
For the visually challenged, audio description and alt text permit a peep into the visual world without being bogged down by its visual information.
As someone who is keenly interested in financial markets, I was delighted to know about Scam 1992. Having read the book on which the show is based, I waited with excitement to watch how the show would narrate the scam as it unfolds, and give life to each character. However, when I finally got myself to watch it, the experience was far from pleasant. For the most part, I had to keep guessing the happenings on the screen. Why would I have to do this, you would think — I am blind, and the show did not have an audio description facility, which helps blind people like me to enjoy television shows by listening to the description of the video.
The experience of having to navigate inaccessible virtual spaces is not limited to OTT platforms. Social media is also not always a welcoming space. A large majority of users, unmindful of people like me and ignorant of the option to put alt text, unwittingly make social media inaccessible. Audio description and alt text are seemingly different technology, but if implemented, can be a window to the visual world for visually-challenged people.
Audio description helps visually-challenged people to understand visual images and other art forms in a theatre, television and several other media platforms through a concise and objective description of scenes, settings etc. By describing body language, costumes and any other detail which visually-challenged individuals cannot infer from the audio track of a movie/television show, audio description makes movie-watching an independent and accessible experience. An audio description track can be added to the video which can be accessed by visually-challenged individuals while watching the show/movie.
Prior to the arrival of audio description, visually-challenged individuals depended on friends and family, or simply had to guess the happenings on the television screen. Alt text or alternative text is a text which users on the web can add while uploading the text on social media and other places. They are textual alternatives to images which contain descriptions about the image. While using the internet, this is important, as screen readers can only access textual content and lack the ability to analyse images. In the absence of alt text, visually-challenged individuals often have to rely on sparse information and at times incorrect descriptions produced by AI-based image recognition. While audio description and alt text are accessibility features enabled by technology, both require human intervention to be implemented successfully.
Seeing the visual world
Life is always not as bad as the day I watched Scam 1992. With the arrival of Netflix in India, for the last four years, I have been binge-watching content with audio description. This has been supplemented with audio-described content from XL cinema (an Indian app which allows users to listen to audio description privately in theatres and at home). The experience on social media also has been significantly better. As more and more of my friends started adding alt text, it became inclusive for me. The change was not drastic and is far from the finishing line. However, the change is palpable and has given me a peep into the visual world and its ways of functioning.
First and foremost, audio description and alt text are sources of information. They help visually-challenged individuals to understand what is happening in a show, or objects and persons in a picture. In this way, both audio description and alt text create an inclusive world in which critical information about cultural life is made accessible for visually-challenged individuals. While both may not ensure making all of the information available for the visually challenged, the existing technology allows for the critical and necessary information to be included in a video or a social media post. This information is crucial as without it visually-challenged individuals cannot understand the content in a video or on social media. However, audio description and alt text also go beyond the informational aspect.
For individuals who are born blind and can be classified as having no light perception, these technologies are an entry point to understanding visuality. The tilt of the head, the steely glance, the subtle rolling of eyes, the smirk and shrugging of the shoulders. The beauty of a beach, mountains and sky or the brilliance of a portrait. These are elements which are abstracted as facial expressions and natural beauty respectively, offering no explanation for someone like me who is born blind. Audio description and alt text are making these facial expressions and natural beauty accessible for visually-challenged individuals through their detailed descriptions. In a world obsessed with conversations about how individuals look and what they express on their faces, this audio description is a gateway to the everyday life of the visual world itself. “The brunette girl in an elegant dress looking at a cityscape with a blunt expression on her face” attains life in the minds of visually-challenged individuals through audio description and alt text. The visuality of human expressions and natural beauty instantly transforms from impregnable to the most accessible and esoteric vocabulary of visuality. It quickly becomes a topic of dinner table conversation for the visually-challenged.
Audio description and alt text help in the integration of the visually challenged with the sighted word as it creates a new set of common grounds for conversation and exchange. For the visually challenged, it permits a peep into the visual world without being bogged down by its visual information. It is one more tool for the visually challenged to read and engage with the visual world. If implemented, it has the potential to impact the social dynamics of blindness. And most importantly, it gives visually-challenged individuals independence and a new sense of confidence.
Towards a better world
The theme for this year’s international day of persons with disability is 'Building Back Better: Toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post- COVID-19 world'. The COVID-19 -induced lockdown has made us aware of the importance of online communities which are inclusive. A better post- COVID-19 world can be made possible for the visually challenged if we are included in virtual spaces, and alt text and audio description are great ways to do it.
When I request my friends to put alt text for their social media posts, the question I am often asked is how and what to add in the alt text. There are many informative resources for this on the internet with simple explanations. Widespread adoption of audio description requires more concerted political action. As the co-founder of XL cinema Dipti Prasad says, “Despite a government directive requiring movies to be made accessible, most production houses in India are not convinced about the need for this." Only a minuscule number of movies and shows produced in India are audio described. As we strive towards becoming a more inclusive society, the need to make movies and television shows accessible needs to be politically articulated.
It is the right of every visually-challenged individual to enjoy movies and feel included on social media. A just and inclusive society is built when each of its members make one positive step towards it. While you may think of persons with disability as inspirational individuals, we are humans in flesh and blood who would like to lead a life like any of you. For this, you can support us in our campaigns to make movies accessible and start making your own social media posts accessible.
Tony Kurian is a PhD candidate at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. He is a visually-challenged research scholar working on agricultural future markets in India. He tweets at @mtonykurian
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