The Routledge Handbook of Audio Description
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The Routledge Handbook of Audio Description

Christopher Taylor, Elisa Perego, Christopher Taylor, Elisa Perego

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eBook - ePub

The Routledge Handbook of Audio Description

Christopher Taylor, Elisa Perego, Christopher Taylor, Elisa Perego

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About This Book

The American Council of the Blind (ACB) Recipient of the 2022 Dr. Margaret Pfanstiehl Audio Description Achievement Award for Research and Development

This Handbook provides a comprehensive overview of the expanding field of audio description, the practice of rendering the visual elements of a multimodal product such as a film, painting, or live performance in the spoken mode, for the benefit principally of the blind and visually impaired community. This volume brings together scholars, researchers, practitioners and service providers, such as broadcasters from all over the world, to cover as thoroughly as possible all the theoretical and practical aspects of this discipline.

In 38 chapters, the expert authors chart how the discipline has become established both as an important professional service and as a valid academic subject, how it has evolved and how it has come to play such an important role in media accessibility. From the early history of the subject through to the challenges represented by ever-changing technology, the Handbook covers the approaches and methodologies adopted to analyse the "multimodal" text in the constant search for the optimum selection of the elements to describe.

This is the essential guide and companion for advanced students, researchers and audio description professionals within the more general spheres of translation studies and media accessibility.

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Part OneAccessibility and blindness

1The question of accessibility

Gian Maria Greco
DOI: 10.4324/9781003003052-3

1. The scope

This text is the opening chapter of The Routledge Handbook of Audio Description. By browsing the collection, readers will learn about audio description (AD), from its history to the various theoretical frameworks and methods, from the current state of research to practices around the world. Audio description is commonly framed as a service (or modality) that provides accessibility. The following sections will discuss some of the reasons, mechanisms and limitations behind the increasing prominence of accessibility and access, as well as the implications for AD and media accessibility in general. Prominent attention will be given to problems more than solutions. In addition, some suggestions for future research will be briefly mentioned in the final section. The overall objective of this text is to encourage readers to contest assumptions, read the rest of the book analytically and approach the question of accessibility and audio description with a critical attitude.

2. Introduction

The question of accessibility has been substantially on the increase in the most diverse venues of human knowledge, from academic research to social debate. This process of intensifying prominence has boomed over the past two decades. A few examples may help illustrate the vastness and variety of this growth.
The idea of a Global Accessibility Awareness Day was born in 2011, with two posts on personal social media accounts. Since then, it has become a global event celebrated on the third Thursday of May that, on its tenth anniversary, included more than 200 activities all over the world.1 While present in national and international legislation for decades, accessibility has recently been at the heart of a massive regulatory process. This accessibility turn in policy development is especially evident in the case of the European Union (Greco, 2019b). It has been one of the major elements in the revision of previous regulations – as in the update of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive – and in spurring ad-hoc regulations, such as the Web Accessibility Directive and, most prominently, the European Accessibility Act. The accessibility turn in policy development is even more patent in the considerable attention this issue has been given by national and international standardisation organisations (Matamala & Orero, 2018). They have released a growing body of standards that range from those devoted to specific services to those addressing more general contexts and processes. An example of the former is ISO/WD 24495–1, a standard on plain language currently under development (ISO, Under preparation). An example of the latter is ISO/IEC 30071–1, which provides a Code of practice for creating accessible ICT products and services (ISO/IEC, 2019), which stemmed from the British standard BS 8878 (BSI, 2010). In 2001 – and later updated in 2014 – the International Organization for Standardization and the International Electrotechnical Commission even released the ISO/IEC Guide 71, a document aimed at providing “guidance to standards developers on addressing accessibility requirements and recommendations” in the very development of standards themselves (ISO/IEC, 2001, 2014). Finally, the investigation on processes and phenomena related to access and accessibility has also become a major line of enquiry in a plethora of fields across the spectrum (Greco, 2018). What was once a minor or fringe issue has become a thriving topic, with well-established conferences and journals. International conferences such as Fun for All, Media for All, Web4All and Universal Access in Human-Computer Interaction – respectively launched in 2010, 2005, 2004 and 2001 – have attracted an increasing number of speakers and participants at every edition. The first Advanced Research Seminar on Audio Description, better known by its acronym ARSAD, was launched in 2007 as a double hands-on workshop attended by 27 participants. Over the years, it has grown into a full-fledged, two-day conference with over 100 attendees. There are journals entirely devoted to the topic, like ACM Transactions on Accessible Computing, Journal of Accessibility and Design for All, and Universal Access in the Information Society, first published respectively in 2008, 2011 and 2001. Its increasing importance is evident not only in the growth of topic-focused venues and publications, but also in the many special issues and sessions devoted to access and accessibility in journals and conferences in the most diverse areas of human knowledge.

3. Premises

Those are examples of a wide and lively revolution that has access and accessibility at its epicentre (Greco, 2018). In order to discuss some of the mechanisms behind the accessibility revolution, its limits, future paths and its implications for audio description, some premises are in order.
First, broadly speaking, access can be conceived as the general issue and accessibility as the related property of an artefact (e.g., environment, service, or product) that can be more or less accessible, that is, providing more or less access. However, their mutual connection and individual position have come to be less straightforward and more intricate over time. If at a theoretical level the question of accessibility is grounded upon the question of access, at a pragmatic level it has almost become the other way around. Accessibility has acquired a standing on its own, which has then influenced the ways in which access is framed and discussed. Second, access is not a recent concept. Grotius and Marx are but two cases in its long history. Grotius’s Mare Liberum (Grotius, 1609/2004) is considered one of the most influential works in international law, the first to provide a full argument for the classification of the seas as a commons (Straumann, 2015). The legacy of Grotius’s thought even reaches contemporary debate on access and regulation in the digital commons (Greco & Floridi, 2004). One of the central points in Grotius’s analysis is how privatisation of the seas would lead to someone controlling access to them and thus, their use and enjoyment. In Marx’s works, access is pivotal for both analysis and change, for example in terms of access to the means of production and access to resources. It is the lens through which social structures can be scrutinised, unveiling how dominant groups exercise power over people by controlling access. It is also the instrument through which the oppressed can transform social structures and revert disenfranchisement.
Third, the question of accessibility emerged as central in the process of identification of the medical model of disability and elaboration of the social model of disability. The medical model of disability conceives disability as such to be an individual problem caused by the individual’s impairments that produce a deviation from a condition established by the dominant group as the norm. Individuals are the problem; they are broken, abnormal. Access can somehow be restored by fixing individuals and bringing them as close as possible to normality. Access problems are due to individuals’ impairments and accessibility refers to the degree of deviance of individuals with impairments from an imposed normality. Conversely, the social model of disability sees disability as the result of a mutual process between individuals with impairments on the one hand and material and social environments, structures and relations designed by an ableist culture on the other hand. Access and accessibility are a material and a socio-political matter related to the ways in which society is designed. Addressing access issues requires challenging, contesting, and changing social environments, social structures, social relations and social thinking. They should be fixed, not individuals.
The social model of disability has been a game-changer in the socio-political field, for it has reversed social roles and social rules and called for new political visions. It has changed how the topics of disability and accessibility are framed and engaged. Despite its ground-breaking character, some of the most prominent and influential scholars in social sciences, especially in disability studies, have been drawing attention to the limitations and potential negative implications of the social model of disability. As Ottosdottir and Evans (2016) highlight, criticism towards the social model of disability ranges from being “gender-, race- and class-blind, speaking mainly of the experiences of white middle class men with physical impairments in the global North” to failing to “recognise personal, embodied experiences of impairment and chronic illness as part of people‘s diverse experiences of disability” (p. 300). A critical position in the context of the present analysis is that the ways in which accessibility solutions are conceived and deployed within the social model of disability has been somehow dominated by the very ableist culture the model was born to overcome (Greco, 2019c). As will be discussed later in the case of media accessibility, access services run the risk of inadvertently reaffirming discriminatory biases and producing a ghetto effect (Greco, 2019c, 2016b).
Fourth, there have only been few theoretical attempts to investigate access so far. Notwithstanding a few exceptions, they have generally been placed within the field of disability studies (Titchkosky, 2011; Williamson, 2019; Guffey, 2020b; e.g., Guffey, 2020a). Scarcer still are the attempts that have focused on the distinctive dimensions of accessibility. This fact is of great relevance, both in general and for media accessibility. Disability and accessibility have a long-standing relationship. They share a good portion of their histories. In the United States, for instance, “initial efforts to address physical barriers in public spaces came in the 1940s and 1950s, partially in response to the return of disabled veterans from World War II and the well-publicised effects of the polio epidemic” (Williamson, 2019: 2). This historical situation laid down the groundwork for the development of barrier-free design (Story et al., 1998). In the following decades, disabled people’s organisations were pivotal in placing the spotlight on accessibility. They demanded national regulations that guaranteed and protected civil rights for persons with disabilities and lobbied for a specific human rights treaty, actively participating in its writing process (Heyer, 2015). The approval of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by the UN in December 2006 was a major booster to the question of accessibility, not only in the social and political arenas, but also in academia. In Article 3, the Convention lists accessibility as a principle. It then moves on to discuss specific aspects in Article 9, expressly entitled Accessibility. Such an explicit presence in the Convention has been instrumental in further mainstreaming the term “accessibility”, but it has also been a source of confusion, as will be discussed in section 4 with reference to media accessibility and audio description.

4. The accessibility stance

The rise of access and accessibility on the world’s stage over the past few decades seems related to a newfound awareness that “anything said about access can be read for how it reflects a host of questions: who has access? Access to where? Access to what? When? Every single instance of life can be regarded as tied to access – that is, to do anything is to have some form of access” (Titchkosky, 2011: 13). The access stance is a foundational lens that enables radical and critical readings of history, thought and society as well as radical and critical proposals (Greco, 2013). Given such an entrenched connection with our very ways of living, one would expect the access stance to be...

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