Although I don't recall the first television program I ever listened to using audio description, I do recall the thrill of hearing a narrator describe actions, scenery, and characters in the program as I watched. Being an avid reader, it felt to me almost like I was reading a book and watching a movie at the same time. Back in the late 80s, when I first began enjoying audio-described content, it was a simple matter of flipping a switch on my old television so that I could access the secondary audio program (SAP) channel on my local PBS station. Shortly thereafter, I began purchasing VHS movies and borrowing them from my local NLS lending library.
Over the years, cable and satellite providers have done away with the traditional SAP channel as we knew it back in the good old days. DVDs replaced VHS cassettes, and blind people began to experience the ever-increasing frustration of on-screen menus that were barely accessible or not accessible at all. Audio-described content on television began to increase, as did that of the newest movie releases. The blind community began to explore ways of getting at audio tracks that contained the coveted description. Some titles were released that contained talking menus, but these were few in number. Playing DVDs on the computer helped, as it was often possible to choose the audio description track that way.
In 1997, a new service called Netflix was founded as a subscription-based DVD rental company. In 2007, Netflix made it possible to watch streaming movies and television programs online. It seemed only right that the blind community should be able to enjoy streaming content with audio description made available in an accessible manner. For a while, there were rumors that Netflix was going to make audio description available, but no fruit ever seemed to appear on the tree. Meanwhile, other companies tried to make audio description available for movies and television programs. Most notable of these was a company called Solo DX that sold only the audio description track, which was intended to be synchronized with the movie or television program being watched. Unfortunately, the company ceased production of content fairly soon after it began. In addition to services such as Solo DX, people in the United Kingdom were able to listen to audio-described content online using the BBC iPlayer. When Apple released version 8.0 of its iOS operating system, there was a checkbox in the accessibility settings to "prefer video description." Unfortunately, few people were able to find any content that took advantage of this new setting.
Things reached a tipping point when Netflix announced that it would be releasing a new series called "Marvel's Daredevil." The main character in the show is a blind superhero. Was it possible that Netflix would release a show featuring a blind man without providing audio description of the program to the blind community? Netflix indicated that it would, in fact, provide audio description for the show, but when it was released in April 2015, description was not available. One week later, however, "Daredevil" became the first show available on Netflix that contained an audio-description track. Some claimed that Netflix caved to pressure from the blind community and the mainstream media after "Daredevil" was released without audio description, while others pointed out that one week wasn't enough time to write, record, and release audio description for an entire first series. Netflix must have been working on audio description before the release of the show, but for some reason the inclusion of the extra audio track was not made available initially.
On Twitter, the talk wasn't so much about when Netflix released audio description, but more about how to access this new feature. Apple TV users had almost no trouble at all, since a press and hold of the "Play" button once an episode started playing exposed the audio description option. Along with many others, I was able to access the audio description track on my iPhone by swiping to and double-tapping the Language option once the first episode of the show began to play. At first, many people, myself included, had to log out of Netflix and log back in again before the desired option appeared. Audio description is listed as a separate language along with English, French, Italian, etc., rather than being listed under English as a subtitle like Closed Captioning. After a few days, the process of choosing Audio description became more reliable. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, once I had enabled audio description on my Apple TV and iPhone, I was able to hear that same description on my Mac without having to do anything. Blind Bargains soon published an article on how to enable Netflix's audio description setting on iPhone, Apple TV, and Android devices. Although some PC users claimed to be able to access the desired content from the Web, most found it quite difficult to do. Using the NVDA screen reader, a user must use the physical mouse to locate and then click the appropriate area of the screen in order to enable the desired feature. An article was published on AppleVis describing how to toggle audio description on Netflix using Chrome on the Mac.
Though in the press release announcing the addition of audio description to "Daredevil "Netflix promised more audio-described content on the horizon, some wondered if they would make good on the promise. It didn't take long to find out that the answer to the question was a resounding "Yes!"
At the time of this writing, there are currently 87 programs available with audio description on Netflix including "House of Cards," "Orange Is the New Black," "Family Guy," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," and "Criminal Minds." Many in the blind community, myself included, have regularly posted the addition of new audio-described content from Netflix on Twitter. I was ecstatic when one of my favorite programs, "Criminal Minds," made the list. After I shared the good news with my Twitter followers, I found myself in a lively discussion about the show. I have also engaged in conversation with others about various aspects of "House of Cards" and "Daredevil" as well.
Now that Netflix has broken the ice, will other providers like Amazon bring audio-described content to their services? It is already possible to view some ABC shows on Apple TV with audio description. Perhaps we are seeing the approach of a time when mainstream access to television programs and movies providing audio-described tracks will be no more difficult for people who are blind than accessing traditional content is for people who are sighted.
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