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The Blind YouTubers Changing the Accessibility of the Internet

There’s no other technology in the world that can transport people to entirely new situations so inexpensively and easily as films can. From the moment the opening scene starts, you’re dropped into that character’s universe – whether that’s 1940s New York, Rome in AD 180, or entering a wormhole in order to save a mid-21st century dying Earth.

Visual media has had its financial ups and downs, but the art has carried it through. Now, we’ve reached a point where the money is so lucrative that one of the most promising tech companies (Netflix) got here by changing the business of films. Effectively, they’ve reopened the battleground over visual media, on which Big Tech will be deploying massive resources.

It’s easy and exciting to get caught in all the hype around Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, with incoming Disney+ and massive Marvel franchises.

But among the turmoil of this emerging era in entertainment, we’re losing sight of a group of movie-lovers that we should be including – the visually impaired community. This is not some sick joke. And at risk of sounding extremely ignorant, I really never realized that blind people went to the movies. But they do.

I first found this out when I came upon the Blind Film Critic, a YouTube channel by Tommy Edison for movie reviews by a blind man. First of all, awesome channel title. Aside from that, the way he breaks down how a blind person experiences a movie was fascinating to me:

I went to see Tropic Thunder and all the resolution was visual. I’d spent two hours with these characters, and in the end, I had no idea what the heck had happened to them.

Tommy Edison, Wired

Honestly, it sounds like a review that you could get from a critic like Roger Ebert. And it reminded me of how most other people have different styles of viewing movies. I know Ryan is a huge movie fan and the way he watches movies is entirely different from me. For instance, his standard for a great movie is:

If I pause the movie at any point in time, can the visuals communicate the dynamics of what is happening / is going to happen in that scene. To steal the name of one of my favorite YouTube movie critics: Every Frame A Painting.

Ryan

Ryan is a totally engrossed by the cinematography. A guy like Quentin Tarantino, on the other hands, is known to be totally engrossed in dialogue. I am shamelessly into action and effects. I love to see how technologists and filmmakers are working together to push technology further.

Different strokes for different folks. In fact, a blind person’s perspective on what makes a movie great could probably do wonders in pushing the art forward, since they’re going to care about different parts of it.

Through technologies such as ADP, the Audio Description Project, more and more movies offer a means through which a movie is experienced by blind people. Audio Descriptions, if you aren’t familiar, are an audio track that narrates what’s happening in a scene but not being said by characters. It’s kind of like an omniscient narrator in a book.

Audio Descriptions are, I believe, the first wave of innovation in making movies accessible to the blind. And there are tons of movies that offer them (most of Netflix does). But, it’s still more of a band aid solution than a long-term way for the blind to experience a movie to its fullest potential. I don’t exactly know what that innovation may be that takes accessibility to the next level, but I do believe we’re on the cusp of it.

No Time Like Now

What’s particularly cool about this period of time, is that platforms like YouTube have given unprecedented “air time” for the blind. There are a number of very famous YouTubers that are blind, who are giving everyone the ability to understand the life of a blind person.

James Rath is a blind filmmaker on YouTube. Tommy Edison, along with his Blind Film Critic channel, has a YouTube channel that’s just about his life. Another is Molly Burke. The three of them combine for an audience of nearly 2.5 million!

They’re reaching an unbelievable amount of people, visually impaired or not, and ultimately spreading awareness. The three of them, and countless other blind YouTubers, have given the world an account of their life that I can honestly say I never would’ve gotten otherwise.

This influence they’ve garnered has led to tech brands like Samsung partnering with Molly to improve the accessibility of their technology. Ultimately, I think we can expect to see an emergence of creators that build experiences and services for peripheral communities, such as the visually impaired.

We’ve already got a number of apps that are serving this community. Be My Eyes is a platform that connects blind and low-vision people with sighted volunteers that’ll lend their eyes via a video chat. Blindsquare is an app that with one shake of the phone, describes the environment and announces points of interest and street intersections as one travels independently.

This should remind us of the ability of the Internet to be an agent of change. Truly this is a ray of sunshine among the darkness that generally is tech news.

Finally, as a lover of films and that feeling of being transported into a different body for two hours, I believe there’s an opportunity to create movies that satisfy both the visually impaired and sighted simultaneously. It may be as simple as creating better audio environments of scenes and building better character dialogue, as this Reddit discussion aims to pin down. Or it might be more technologically involved.

Nonetheless, if I were to bet on a company that can deploy these experiences at scale, it would be Netflix. They’ve already done a couple amazing things this year. Not to mention, the nearly 8 million people nationally and over 285 million people globally that suffer from visual impairments would be a very niche demographic that Netflix could cater to.

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