I was recently contacted by two writers and advocates working on pushing digital media to provide audio descriptions for the show Switched at Birth. You can read about their efforts here. Audio descriptions are always necessary to make TV and movies fully accessible, but this show, with its frequent use of ASL, makes them especially important. Also, because it’s a show about difference, disability, and identity, the irony of the show being inaccessible to blind individuals is particularly heavy.
Here’s what the writers experienced when they first turned on the show:
As the first episode introduced Daphne and Bae there was a lot of dialogue. And so I could follow that story. Daphne’s mother was there and signed while she spoke which was nice. Shortly though it became clear that there were a lot of scenes shot completely in ASL. So there was just silence in those moments. Though I love audio description, and have never been so energized about advocating for it since meeting Robert, I’ve usually done pretty good with shows that have a lot of dialogue. But this was so different as part of a conversation could be going on in ASL and then someone talking in English so it was extremely difficult.
It strikes me that there has to be a better way to get audio descriptions added to a show. We went through this with Daredevil, when the irony that a show featuring a blind protagonist wouldn’t be accessible to blind people generated lots of publicity and forced Netflix to make the change (I covered it for Vice). There’s something similar going on here, and with sufficient push, I’m sure it’s possible to get Freeform’s streaming service (ABC Family changed its name; read about the fascinating history of the network here from Jacqui Shine) to add audio descriptions, or otherwise to push Netflix/AppleTV/whoever to do it? I suspect it might have to come from the network, though.
I wrote three pieces about Switched at Birth last Fall, when the show added a Down syndrome prenatal diagnosis plot.
- What Switched at Birth gets Right and Wrong about Families Like Mine (Salon.com, 9/8/15)
- Down Syndrome, Prenatal Testing, and a Teenage Soap Opera? The Importance of Switched At Birth (The Mary Sue, 9/02/15)
- A “Bechdel-Wallace” Test for the Disability Community (Al Jazeera America, 8/30/15)
For Al Jazeera America (RIP), I wrote:
The producers of “Switched at Birth” also play with sound and hearing. When two deaf individuals sign, ambient sound drops. American Sign Language (ASL) conversations sometimes take place without subtitles, replicating the perspective of hearing people who do not sign. A highly praised episode in season two is entirely in ASL, showing a dramatized teenage version of the real-life Galludet uprising, in which deaf students at Galludet University, in Washington, D.C., staged a sit-in to demand a deaf president. In the show, the students seize control of a deaf-only school in danger of being closed.
In another episode, police arrest Emmett and react violently when he doesn’t respond to shouted commands. The scene is shown both with and without sound. In the former, there’s just a bright light shining in Emmett’s face before officers suddenly tackle him. I frequently write about the violence experienced at the hands of police by people with disabilities, including deaf individuals, but I’ve never seen such a scene portrayed on mainstream TV.
Furthermore, in the break between the seasons (it returns next January), I consulted with Lizzy Weiss, the show creator, and other writers, about the experience of being a new father of a boy with Down syndrome. I have to tell you that there are plenty of scenes coming that make me tear up. There’s also one scene in the finale which, at least in reading the script, simply left me breathless in its depictions of disability and agency. Stay tuned, as they say (do they still say that?).
I’m committed to the show. I want it accessible to everyone. But I don’t want to get audio descriptions in this piecemeal way, where advocates have to band together and fight, show by show. We need to make it a default. I’m not sure how to get there.
Universal design for TV is TV with audio descriptions.