Friday, August 29, 2014

Accessible apps: The sky is the limit

Audio description is an important element in making media accessible for people who are blind or vision-impaired. We talked to Joel Snyder, founder of Audio Description Associations, LLC, who is one of the pioneers in audio description, about how audio description fits into mobile accessibility and how he sees audio description evolving in a mobile ecosystem. 

How did you start in audio description and how do see the impact that mobile technologies like the smartphone and tablet have on audio description? 

Joel: I have been working with audio description probably longer than anybody, around 34 years now. I was part of the group of people to really expand on the idea of audio description and develop the first ongoing audio description service in the beginning of the1980s in the Washington DC area. I had been working with a radio reading service, the Washington Ear, and they developed the service in response to discussions with Arena Stage, one of the nation’s finest regional theatres. 

I have not worked with Arena Stage in many years but one of the current contracts my company has is with the American Council of the Blind. I direct its Audio Description Project and one of their initiatives involves a grant to work with Arena Stage during this next season to make audio description available for every performance of two productions. Typically, audio description in performing arts is only offered at one or two performances in a run.  That, of course, restricts the ability of audio description consumers to access a theatrical event.  

My company works on audio description in all its genres and formats. We still do work with performing arts, museums, and media but also a great deal of work in training and speaking on description. I have helped introduce audio description in almost 40 countries and most of the United States. That has been a great honour. 

What are in your opinion the most valuable accomplishments in mobile accessibility so far? 

Joel: Mobile technologies present exciting new opportunities for the performing arts, but perhaps even more so for film, DVDs, and streaming content. My company is working closely with a group, Compass Interactive, and one of their projects is an app called Parlamo. Downloading this app enables you to use your smartphone to access audio description in any environment. It can be used primarily to access alternative language tracks for movies, but it also can provide downloads of free audio description tracks for movies, TV programmes, or arts events. Furthermore, the app has a feature, Crystal Sound, that enhances sound for the benefit of people who are hard-of-hearing. People who use assisted listening devices need more than simply increased volume; more importantly they need clarity. Crystal Sound essentially fulfils the function of an equalizer. It adjusts frequencies to enable people to hear more clearly, while it offers increased volume.  

So this app can enable people who speak other languages to access to content that may originally be in English. But it also allows people who are blind to access audio description and enables people who are hard-of-hearing to hear more clearly. 

All of this can apply to the performing arts as well,  As I mentioned earlier, theatrical productions may run for, say, six weeks of performances but audio description is often only provided at one or two performances.  Mobile apps can allow blind users access to the entire run of performances via their own devices. 

We have the Parlamo app already listed in GARI’s accessibility app section and are very happy about it. These apps also show wonderfully how audio description fits into the mobile ecosystem. What about tablets though? 

Joel: I have used apps like Parlamo on my desktop and, of course, they can also be used on tablets.  If you have your tablet on your lab in a movie theatre, you can plug in your earphones and use the app to access the audio description, alternative languages, or the Crystal Sound capability. Also, this allows the theatre to reduce the need to maintain and distribute cumbersome receivers and headsets. Generally, people have to receive a receiver and headset from the theatre, but as you might imagine batteries run out, other people have used the same equipment, users often are ill-trained in how the equipment operates and so on. The apps liberate the theatre and the consumer by letting consumers use their own equipment. The consumer simply downloads the alternative language or the audio description for a given film -it’s a win for both sides. 

What does the US Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) prescribe in terms of audio description? 

Joel: The CVAA mandates by law rules that were earlier developed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regarding audio description for broadcast television. It provides for approximately 4 hours of audio description per week for each of the top 9 broadcasters in the US. These audio descriptions must be provided in the top 25 markets.  

At the M-Enabling Summit we talked about the increasing impact of mobile apps. From your perspective as an audio description expert, what would be your key message to app developers? 

Joel: I think the only limit is the extent of a developer’s own imagination and technical skills. Apps like Parlamo represent the future for media access. I honestly think that wireless opportunities will open up the world to far greater access for people who are blind or have low vision. For instance, I am working with another company on an app that can identify products. Every smartphone has a camera that can be used to send  an image to a sighted person or be recognized via the app. This would provide swift access to information that might otherwise be unavailable. 

So our own creative and technical skills can foster apps that can help people with any kind of disability. They can offer an important sense of freedom, letting people do without a lot of hardware, like money identifiers, for example. So, the smartphone and new apps can be liberating in many ways. 

Have a look at the Parlamo app on GARI:

The website of Audio Description Associations, LLC: