Video description today: For their audience, words are worth a thousand pictures

A visually impaired person watching CBS’s Survivor cannot see the ousted member’s torch extinguished, doesn’t know what Bart writes on the blackboard in The Simpsons’ opening sequence, and can’t laugh at the antics of Eddie the terrier on Frasier. But thanks to Descriptive Video Service, he or she can understand that the silence on an episode of ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre’s “Our Mutual Friend” means that Bella is gazing at the fire with tear-filled eyes after scorning a suitor, that the splashing on Nature signifies grizzly cubs out for a swim, or that Arthur doesn’t look much like a real aardvark. DVS, a service of WGBH, Boston, has been around since 1987, and in those 13 years PBS has been the lone broadcast network to regularly carry programs that are accessible to the blind. By tuning their TV sets to the secondary audio programming (SAP) channel, those who have trouble seeing can enjoy Mystery!, Nova, The Living Edens, The American Experience, Wishbone, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and a smattering of other programs in which a narrator fills the pauses in dialogue to describe the characters’ features, clothing, and gestures; setting and scenery; action sequences and other purely visual elements. DVS, which operates under the aegis of WGBH’s Media Access Group, provides video description not only for public television but also for some films shown on the Turner Classic Movie Network, in IMAX theaters, and some first-run film releases, such as Titanic and the upcoming The Patriot.

Promising medium for the blind: audio over the Internet

The Internet will revolutionize how radio reading services deliver — and their visually impaired clients receive — information, but providers are just beginning to explore the possibilities. Of the 100 or so radio reading services that belong to the International Association of Audio Information Services, only a handful now have web sites that provide audio streaming. Theoretically at least, “every radio reading program can be put onto an audio server and listened to by any blind person anywhere, anytime,” as long as he or she has Internet access, Bob Brummond, g.m. of the RAISE Reading Service in Asheville, N.C., told attendees at the IAAIS annual conference last month in Washington, D.C.

The Internet offers a way to leapfrog over many of the problems facing radio reading services. Services typically broadcast over a subcarrier channel of an FM radio station (frequently a public radio station or one associated with a college or library). Listeners must have a special subsidiary communications authorization (SCA) receiver to hear the closed-circuit broadcast.