by Mitch Pomerantz

This is the Friday following a very special Inauguration Day, both for America and for the American Council of the Blind. Experiencing the pomp and circumstance surrounding the departure of an incumbent president and the arrival of a new chief executive gives the observer – at least this observer – a true sense of patriotic pride. But on this past Tuesday, something particularly newsworthy occurred: for only the second time, there was audio description of the inaugural ceremonies carried on a major network’s SAP (Secondary Audio Program) channel.

In the January “Braille Forum,” Chris Gray and Joel Snyder outlined ACB’s Audio Description Project. The article, as well as our recent press release, have drawn extremely positive comments from members and non-members alike. Blind and visually impaired people recognize the value of description in our enjoyment of movies, television and live theater. Beyond this, however, audio description provides another avenue by which we achieve equality with our sighted peers because of the importance the aforementioned media plays in today’s popular culture. If we can discuss details of the latest movie with our co-workers, friends and family, we are that much closer to being perceived as equal in the minds of those individuals.

Even before Joel was officially on board, he made contact with representatives from ABC Television to see if the network would be willing to broadcast the description of the inauguration and related festivities. The network agreed and ultimately, activities on Sunday and Wednesday were aired as well. WGBH also arranged separately for live description on PBS stations around the country. This meant that at least in theory, blind and visually impaired people would have an unprecedented choice on Jan. 20. As it turned out, in many parts of the country this was not the case; but more on that momentarily. Coincident with the foregoing, Chris asked me if he could try getting the described feed of the inauguration streamed on ACB Radio World. I was pretty pessimistic given that Chris was seeking permission from ABC on the Monday prior to the big day, which just happened to be Martin Luther King’s birthday. Well, the impossible happened! The ABC attorney e-mailed Chris Monday afternoon with permission; and a very good thing, too!

Early Tuesday morning, Donna and I awoke, turned on our television, tuned to the local ABC affiliate, pushed the SAP button on the remote and ... nothing, no description. Very disappointing! After a few more tries we turned on my computer and found ACB Radio World. It took a few minutes to verify that Joel and his female co-describer were there, since the ABC team appeared to be trying to do their best not to leave even 10 seconds of dead air. I must admit that we totally forgot to check the local PBS station to see if our cable provider was carrying WGBH’s description.

We thoroughly enjoyed the description and Geoff Shang and Naama Erez’s comments during network commercial breaks. From the e-mails they read on those breaks, it is clear that everyone else did as well. As a bonus, Geoff mentioned that ACB Radio World had a record number of hits, certainly a great accomplishment for ACB Radio.

Subsequent e-mail seemed to indicate that several major cities -- Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Indianapolis -- did not receive the SAP feed while Denver, San Jose and the New York City area did. Clearly, ABC did its job. It becomes more problematic when attempting to determine whether the lack of description in the aforementioned areas was the fault of the local ABC affiliate for failing to pick up the SAP signal, or the cable and satellite providers for not relaying it. Here in the L.A. area neither of the major cable operators offered audio description of the day’s events.

Notwithstanding the spotty national provision of the description of the inauguration, I am tremendously proud of what amounts to the first successful initiative of ACB’s Audio Description Project. I am also very optimistic that Joel and the project will place audio description on the media’s main stage alongside closed captioning for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. It is a sad reality that for a variety of reasons, captioning services are mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, while audio description is not. We have been playing from behind for nearly 20 years and it is long past time for us to catch up and have audio description receive the same respect and status as captioning in federal statute and in the minds of media moguls.

Finally, this year’s version of H.R. 6320, which would – among other things – require a set number of television hours per week to be audio described, must be enacted into law. This will necessitate a significant number of Congressional co-sponsors. And that, ladies and gentlemen, will only happen if we make it happen by calling, writing and, yes, visiting our members of Congress to let them know how important audio description is to blind and visually impaired people. Take the cue from President Obama and volunteer to do more for your community; in this case, the community of men and women comprising the American Council of the Blind.

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