What About Description for Movies or Educational Media on DVD?

It’s a good news, bad news story. The good news is that description is beginning to be included on DVDs, but the bad news is that only a few titles include description. The situation may be getting better for educational media used in classrooms, but first, a quick discussion of DVD movies and TV shows.

Since many movies are now coming to theaters with description, you’d think that the releases on DVD would also have the description. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. Only a handful of movies have been released with description and it may not be obvious from the listing of features on the DVD.

Since description has already been done for so many movies, why isn’t the DVD released with description? A good question indeed. I’ve been told that some studios claim there isn’t room on the DVD to fit the description track. Sure, it’s more important to have the commentary track from the director’s third cousin than to make room for a description track. Maybe if we all start asking for described movies on DVD we can convince Hollywood that there’s an audience interested in enjoying movies with description. After all, most movies are released with captions. And, perhaps the greater capacity provided through Blu-ray might help.

Anyway, the ever helpful folks at the Media Access Group at WGBH maintain a list of accessible DVDs.

If you’re a fan of PBS programs, you may be able to find many of these with description. A good place to shop for accessible PBS programs on DVD is also at WGBH, shop.wgbh.org/category/show/3241.

Thanks to the efforts of the American Council of the Blind (ACB), I am happy to report that “The Miracle Worker” is now available on DVD with description. You’ll get to experience a powerful story about Helen Keller, help show that there’s interest in video description, and help support a worthy organization since a portion of each order benefits ACB. Go to www.adinternational.org.

By the way, this is the 30th Anniversary Edition of The Miracle Worker (the one based on the 1979 TV remake starring Melissa Gilbert as Helen Keller and Patty Duke as her tutor).

Besides the lack of available DVD titles with description, there is another problem with accessing described movies on DVD. The menu or list of choices that is displayed when you put a DVD in a player is currently not accessible for someone who cannot see the screen. PBS and the Media Access Group produced some excellent examples of an accessible DVD menu using spoken guidance to help the user with vision loss navigate through the menu. Unfortunately, this system is only available for a handful of American Experience programs so far. So, here’s another challenge, though as I mentioned in my previous blog, we’re working on legislation to require accessible controls on equipment like DVD players.

OK, I know it’s summer, but it’s not too early to start thinking about school. Specifically, I want to make sure that any education video shown in a classroom where a blind student is present is made available with video description. Although all educational media is not currently required to be accessible for students with disabilities (something I’m hoping we can work to change through legislation), schools must ensure that media used to instruct a student with a disability is accessible.

And, as I said, there is beginning to be more accessible educational media available with descriptions (thanks in part to funding provided by the US Department of Education) and the work of our friends at the Described and Captioned Media Program (DCMP). For many years, The DCMP has worked to make educational media accessible, initially by adding captions to media and more recently by including descriptions as well. Among other important services, DCMP loans described and captioned educational media to schools and directly to families with students who are deaf, blind, hard of hearing, visually impaired, or deaf-blind. Registration at the DCMP site is easy. Check out their profile on FamilyConnect for details.

AFB worked with DCMP to create guidelines for describing educational media. These guidelines help to explain why description is important and how to make educational material accessible through descriptions. You can access the guidelines, known as the “Description Key for Educational Media,” on the DCMP site at www.descriptionkey.org.

There are organizations doing some innovative work to improve access to multimedia through captions or descriptions. For example, CaptionMax, which has developed the “Universal Access to Media (UAM)” program. Among other things, it includes a talking menu system for DVDs and something called expanded descriptions. In Expanded Description the video program is paused briefly, allowing additional time to thoroughly describe a scene. This allows more extensive description of complicated visual elements like graphs, diagrams, and on-screen text. You can see examples of their work online.

Another example of innovative educational media description can be found in the work of Bridge Multimedia. It has developed an approach called “EXTRA InfoTM” to provide important background facts and details such s set, costume or character descriptions helpful to blind or visually impaired audiences. EXTRA Info can be accessed online as streamed audio or as a scalable text file.

I know that access to video with descriptions on DVD or via the web seems complicated. And, right now, it is more complicated than it should be. Nonetheless, I hope you’ll check out the many resources included here and begin to experience the satisfaction and opportunity for richer information that awaits you with described media. And, as always, I invite you to write a comment to let us all learn from your experience.