Guest Author: Jim Stovall, Co-Founder and President, Narrative Television Network
As we celebrate and contemplate the impact of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) over the last 40 years, we must consider not only where we are but where we’ve been and, more importantly, where we’re going. The technological breakthroughs and marvels that we experience here in the 21st Century have changed our world and changed the way we all live. Among the innovations that would most shock and bewilder our ancestors would be the proliferation of visual images that we experience. A few generations ago, a black-and-white snapshot was a prized and treasured family possession. Today, we routinely carry with us smart phones and other devices that put digital photography and videos at our fingertips.
At its best, technology is the wondrous tide that lifts all boats, but at its worst, it can create an ever-widening gulf between the mainstream population and those individuals dealing with disabilities. If a picture is, indeed, worth a thousand words, a video is certainly worth a million words. The following brief example will allow you to experience the opening of a movie just as a blind person does, but it won’t leave you in the dark as then you will see a second sample video that will provide the solution that is being experienced by millions of people around the world.
Nowhere is the need for this life-changing accessibility greater than in the classroom. Description is simply the process of making the visual world verbal. When done well, it is the key to unlocking the door to educational opportunities for countless blind and visually-impaired students across the country.
The U.S. Department of Education, through description grant projects, has linked the creators of the best educational videos available anywhere with production organizations that create description and made it possible for this dynamic partnership to impact visually-impaired students.
As the founder and president of a company dedicated for over a quarter of a century to creating accessible educational programming, I am obviously committed to description, but my true dedication stems from the fact that I’m a blind person myself. I’ve experienced the educational process as a fully-sighted person through my elementary years, as a visually-impaired/partially-sighted person during my middle and high school years, and as a totally-blind person through much of my college experience. It remains almost impossible for me to fully describe to sighted people the impact of description.
In a survey conducted in conjunction with the American Council of the Blind, it was revealed that fully 99% of the blind and visually impaired individuals supported description and wanted more of it. I realize it’s almost impossible to imagine 99% of any group agreeing on anything, but if you will consider what the response might be to a survey of fully-sighted people if they were asked whether they were in favor of having the availability of television, movies, and streamed video programming, you can begin to understand what description means to the visually-impaired population in the educational process and in the world beyond.
In a study conducted in cooperation with National Geographic Television involving visually-impaired students, their parents, and teachers, it was revealed that the comprehension for blind and visually-impaired students approximately doubled when the educational programming had description. In an educational landscape where dedicated professionals struggle to get a one or two percent improvement, these results are overwhelming.
The impact of description extends beyond accessibility for visually-impaired students and includes students with learning disabilities, those learning English as a second language, and the general school population. An elementary teacher, Gail Patterson, whose class participated in the National Geographic study, may have put it best when she said, “The students and I were very excited about viewing the documentaries with description. Truthfully, I think added description would be helpful to not only visually impaired students but to other students as well.” But as is often the case, if you want to know what’s best for students or most compelling to them, you need to simply ask the kids. Brian, a visually-impaired middle school student, said, “I think described movies are a miracle for kids who can’t see the television screen!”
Hanna, a visually-impaired high school student, said, “I am blind, so it is a real benefit to have description. I wish that audio description was as popular as captioning.” P. Killius, an accessibility advocate in New York, said, “My friend is writing for me. I am blind. I am employed teaching self-advocacy to the physically challenged. Never in my career have I been so pleased about anything as I am about Narrative Television Network. Your dialogue allows the unsighted to really understand every little nuance that until now could only be enjoyed by those with sight. A whole new world has been opened to us.”
As an author myself, I have felt the satisfaction of having six of the novels I have dictated produced as major motion pictures and enjoyed by millions of people around the world. This feeling of satisfaction pales in comparison to the experience of turning existing movies, television shows, educational programming, and other visual media into accessible described programming in which the narrated words we insert come to life in the theatre of the mind within blind and visually-impaired people.
Through grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education, we are not only able to give blind and visually-impaired students access to visual material, but it gives them access to a real education and, therefore, the whole world.