Video Description and Summer Movie Fun

Ah summer, beloved by children anxious for the freedom and fun of lazy days and family time! There are indeed many great family activities to do during the summer, and Hollywood is hoping that seeing movies is high on your list. I know the new Harry Potter movie (coming out in July) will be on my family’s list. This month I’m using this space to help familiarize you with “video description” (also sometimes called audio description), which is designed to make movies, TV programs and educational media more enjoyable and accessible for people who are blind or visually impaired. And I suspect, more enjoyable for their sighted family members too.

This week I’ll try to explain video description and focus on movies. After that, I’ll turn to the challenge of video description and TV programs and on DVDs. And, although school is winding down, I will also address video description as a method for making the video media used in classrooms more accessible (please be sure to visit our newest partner page to learn about the Described and Captioned Media Program, which I’ll say more about in a later post). Finally, I hope we can have a discussion about your experience with video description.

First, a Word or Two About Me

I am AFB’s Vice President in charge of programs and policy. I am also blind, having lost my sight when I was 18 months old. I am married and have two children (both of whom can see and who LOVE going to the movies and watching TV).

As a child, my parents encouraged me to be curious and indeed I was and still am. I am the guy in the room who won’t stop asking questions. While I suspect that I would have been curious regardless of my vision loss, I think that everyone who is blind probably has experienced far too often the frustration of not being able to see what is happening on a TV show or in a movie. I’m sure I drove my parents and brothers crazy always asking “what happened?” while we were watching TV or a movie together, and I’m still bugging my family today with the same question. Unless you have tried watching a movie or a TV show from another room or while driving a car you might not even realize how much of a story depends on the action that takes place in between or in place of dialogue. I know that my wife and daughters look forward to going to movies that are video described so that we all get the full experience of the movie without “shushing” from other patrons and without the stress of trying to decide what to describe in a quick whisper without interfering with the dialogue.

What Exactly Is Video Description?

Video description is a technique that incorporates a recorded, narrated description of visual action and key information in a scene into natural pauses in a program’s dialogue (WGBH, a public broadcasting operation in Boston, brought the concept of description to TV and movies in 1990). Now, new movie releases often come out with video description and/or closed captions (the technique for providing access for people who are deaf or hard of hearing to see captions of the dialogue). You can see and hear some examples on the WGBH website:

If you are interested in finding out about movies being released with video description, the best place to go is the “MoPix” website at (established by WGBH). If a theater is equipped with MoPix technology, a blind customer simply goes to the theater, obtains a pair of headphones at guest services, and listens to the description of onscreen visual action taking place during the movie (through the headphones) while listening to the movie audio in the theater. Generally, the description is timed so that it doesn’t interfere with the movie dialogue and sound effects. Because the description is transmitted through special headphones, sighted patrons are not disturbed by the additional audio track. This way, the movie can be enjoyed by moviegoers who are blind and sighted simultaneously.

Unfortunately, not every community has a MoPix-equipped theater. I’m lucky to live in a place where we regularly attend movies at four convenient, MoPix-equipped theaters, but I know this isn’t true, yet, in very many places. However, you can change this by working with your local theater to urge them to add the technology. Be warned, it probably won’t be easy, but there is a great story on the MoPix website about how it can be and has been done successfully.

Not every movie comes out with video description either. But, an increasing amount do. Right now, if you can get to a theater with the MoPix technology, you might be able to choose among such movies as “Up,” “Night in the Museum 2: Escape from the Smithsonian,” “Star Trek” and others. And, you might be surprised to find that some movie studios will agree to add description if asked. We actually requested description for two movies, and the studios agreed to add it before the movies were released. You can read about the story on the AFB blog.

One other caveat: The MoPix headphones I’ve used aren’t perfect. They’re kind of bulky (pretty old school for iPod users) and you have to balance the headphones on the edge of your ears so you can simultaneously hear the movie soundtrack along with the narration. As is true of all technology, I believe that as more theaters add Mopix and more consumers seek out theaters with the technology, the headphones will be improved due to customer demand.

OK, your turn, I’d like to hear from families about your experience with video description. How was the description experience? If you can, please take in a movie this weekend with video description and write to tell us about it.