Kelly and Company Podcast: State of Accessibility in Entertainment

Thank you to Kelly MacDonald and Ramya Amuthan of the Kelly and Company for having me on their podcast discussing the state of accessibility in entertainment. Here’s the transcript. It’s not word for word, but it’s very much what we talked about.

We’re starting to see accessibility more and more in the entertainment industry. How would you grade the progress we’ve made from say, 10 years ago?

My definition of entertainment based on this conversation is the movie and TV industry including streaming networks. I’d give the industry a B- or C+. While they’ve made strides in many areas, they’ve also taken a step back in others.

The biggest one is that I’m seeing more and more poor-quality captions. This means they’re in all upper case or they’re what I call moving captions that scroll. This is typically reserved for live shows. Both of these are showing up in recorded shows.

While captions are more widespread, I still see videos on social media from the entertainment industry that aren’t captioned. Audio description is finally getting more attention, but it still needs work.

Several large studios and networks have announced efforts to hire more people with disabilities as actors. I’ve noticed more people with disabilities on TV and in movies. I look forward to the day when I don’t notice it anymore because it will mean that it’s become a common occurrence.

People with disabilities make up more than 15% of the world’s population. That’s one in every five people. If a movie has 30 people in it and it wants to reflect the population of people with disabilities, then there will be 4 to 5 characters with disabilities. Of course, not all disabilities are visible. But many invisible disabilities have little mannerisms that others with the disability will notice.

Which networks and streaming platforms are succeeding in accessibility?

I’m answering this question in terms of content accessibility. One thing that stands out in my mind is the NBCUniversal. They provided captioning for all Olympic and Paralympic events that aired on NBC’s broadcast and cable networks for both the Summer and Winter Olympics.

NBC Olympics also provided closed captioning for all digital live streams. This is more than what the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act requires. They also provided audio description services for all competitions that aired during primetime hours as well as the opening and closing ceremonies. The Paralympic Games had live audio descriptions for all broadcast programming including non-prime time.

The challenge in determining how well a network does in accessibility is that not everything is under its purview. The network is not always responsible for the captioning and audio description. It may fall under the production company’s responsibility.

However, what networks can do is require all production companies to comply with their accessibility standards. For example, they could stipulate that all recorded shows must contain captions that are in sentence case, not all upper case.

Which networks and platforms still need improvement?

I noticed an odd common thread on Hulu, which makes me wonder who is responsible for the captions. Every time I watch Hulu, the captions always cover the credits. When the show starts, we see the cast members’ names as well as the guest stars. The captions are always overlapping this onscreen information.

And if a show puts important onscreen information, such as “2 hours later,” the captions would also cover that.

Apple TV has a quirk in that some of its shows did not caption music lyrics. Obviously, this wasn’t a problem in CODA. Captions should always include the music lyrics. When there are no lyrics, then describe the mood such as jaunty music or foreboding music.

Disney did an amazing job of captioning Hamilton and getting the speed. But it had one problem. All of the lyrics appeared in italics. A better way is to use musical notes around the lyrics. Italics are hard for some people to read.

Another issue is when text appears on the screen like translating another language. Often, these are not readable because they have a background color to provide contrast.

As someone who identifies as deaf, what experiences have you had with these platforms?

One thing is hit or miss. That’s foreign or international films and shows. Some of them caption the sounds and some don’t. I remember watching a movie and the characters were scrambling. All of a sudden, they froze with fear on their faces. I couldn’t figure out why. A few moments later, we see someone at the front door. The doorbell rang.

And some international shows sometimes have a character say something in English. These are often not captioned. So, I was pleasantly surprised when Netflix’s Squid Games captioned everything including music, sounds, and English dialog.

Other than the examples I’ve given, there are rarely any patterns with regard to accessibility on platforms. A lot of that has to do with who does the captioning. Some captioners will put sounds and speaker names in all upper case. Some don’t. While there are several great captioning guidelines out there, they’re guidelines, not the rule.

What recommendations would you make to ensure future TV and film projects are accessible to all audiences?

I’d like to see audio descriptions become as common as captions. Part of the challenge is the process of writing and creating audio descriptions is a challenge and different from captions. I also would like to see networks provide accessible transcripts so those using screen readers can access them. Captions are not accessible to screen readers.

You might be wondering why someone who uses a screen reader would need a transcript. People who are blind aren’t the only ones who use screen readers. Deafblind people do too as well as those with dyslexia and other disabilities.