TV for all: how a Canadian company is making TV better for people with visual impairments

Accessible Media Inc. has pioneered Integrated Described Video, bringing universal design to TV

Accessible Media Inc. has pioneered Integrated Described Video, bringing universal design to TV

A scene from AMI's You Can't Ask That. (Pixcom/AMI)

In April 2015, Daredevil — a show about a blind superhero — premiered on Netflix without described video, rendering it unwatchable by viewers with visual impairments.

Though the issue was quickly fixed, described video isn't actually that accessible. It segregates the experience of visually-impaired viewers from their sighted friends and family. But Canadian broadcaster Accessible Media Inc. [AMI] created a seamless solution called Integrated Described Video [IDV] that all viewers can enjoy together without barriers.

The Problem with DV on TV

Described video made its debut on PBS in 1985. Since then, it's become the go-to answer for watching TV when you're visually-impaired.

Its classic incarnation features a narrating voiceover on an existing show. The narrator describes what's happening as a means of filling in the gaps for someone who is visually-impaired. However, there are issues with descriptive video that makes it an imperfect solution.

"It's good, but it does have its flaws because you only have limited opportunities to enter that kind of descriptive information," says Chris O'Brien, accessibility officer for AMI.

AMI began in 1989 as a news reading service for the visually-impaired. Now it's a specialty channel with all accessible programming. Half of its content is popular shows and movies while the other half is original shows spotlighting Canadians with disabilities.

In developing their programming, AMI works with a panel of 1,200 people from the blind and partially-sighted community. According to the panel, not everyone likes descriptive video. They find the voice-over intrusive, especially if they're watching in mixed company.

"Let's say you're watching with your family and you're blind, but other members of your family are not," says O'Brien. "You may object to watching a movie with DV because that secondary voice takes you out of the show you're watching"

As a result, they found people with visual impairments were avoiding watching TV with their sighted family and friends, in order to watch it with descriptive video by themselves.

"That's not exactly an inclusive approach to consuming content," says O'Brien "Watching TV is a very social activity, so we endeavoured to figure out a way to make it more inclusive."

Integrated description means you're not creating anything for a specific viewer, which is what universal design is – usable by the largest number of people possible.- Chris O'Brien, AMI Accessibility Officer

Enter Integration

Five years ago, AMI invented a process known as Integrated Described Video [IDV]. Instead of an external narrator describing what's happening after the fact, accessibility is built in naturally as part of the show's production.

Everything from how the show is written and directed, to the robustness of the soundtrack and what the actors do tells all viewers what's happening on screen. This creates a seamless experience that the sighted and non-sighted can enjoy together in the same way.

AMI worked with CBC to bring IDV to You Can't Ask That, a new show where Canadians get their burning questions about life with a disability answered by those who have them.

Though she'd never worked on a show with IDV before, Mariane McGraw, director of You Can't Ask That, found it easy to incorporate into her direction.

"It almost becomes second nature once you get a hang of it," she says. "The key is to make sure to brief the participants before so they always keep in mind that they have to be very descriptive, probably more then they would naturally be."

If the participants pointed to something, they would also describe what they were pointing at. If they make a funny face because of something they're seeing, they would describe their reaction and what they saw.

"You can do this in an entertaining, non-formulaic way," says O'Brien. "You just have to come at it from a position where you're not making assumptions about what people can see and what they can't."

In addition to creating a more inclusive, unobtrusive viewing experience for everyone, O'Brien says Integrated Described Video provides many auxiliary benefits on the production side.

"If we're selling a program to Netflix for example, we don't have to worry about them receiving a separate description track and then worrying about them being able to synchronize that and play that track," he says. "With Integrated Described Video it's all one file, so transmitting files is very simple."

But, while all of AMI's programming now features Integrated Described Video, described video and closed captioning, other channels and streaming services are still a long way from such comprehensive access.

How Other Broadcasters Can Be More Accessible?

Take some initiative

Closed captioning is required on all channels, described video is only mandated from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Broadcasters and streaming services can take their own initiative to expand that service when it comes to providing accessible TV.

Make it a requirement

Daredevil and what Shaftesbury Films' Murdoch Mysteries had captions and descriptive video built in by the production company. Broadcasters could start making accessibility a requirement for their third-party producers.

"If they built that in as a requirement of their production, then we'd be in a better place because that would mean that everything that's being created would ship with captioning and description," says O'Brien.

Embrace IDV

Right now, IDV is mostly only available on AMI productions. To make TV truly accessible, it needs to be much more widespread.

"I think IDV is essential if we really want to be inclusive in our media," says McGraw. "IDV allows everybody to have access to great content."