by Marc Maurer
From the Editor: Several years ago a number of people (notably WGBH‑TV in Boston) developed the Descriptive Video Service, which describes visual aspects of films on a separate channel that does not interfere with the audio channel of the film. This service is intended to provide the blind with enough information to permit blind film viewers to understand what is being presented in visual form only.
Some blind people have felt that this service should be made a federal requirement. The National Federation of the Blind has supported descriptive video, but it has consistently opposed the notion that audio‑described films and television programming should be required by law. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), at the request of a small group of blind people who are apparently more interested in entertainment than information, adopted a rule to require a certain amount of descriptive video on network television as a matter of law. The Federation filed a complaint in Federal Court opposing this regulation. Now a letter has come to President Maurer asking why this was done. This is his response:
April 10, 2001
Recently you sent me the following e-mail letter:
I have recently been made aware that you have joined the NAB [National Association of Broadcasters], NCTA [National Cable Television Association] and MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America] in a suit to prevent FCC [Federal Communications Commission] DVS [Descriptive Video Service] rules from going into effect. I find this troublesome. Mainly due to the fact that it is you, the NFB, that has underwritten the past inaugurals for DVS on PBS. So in light of that let me make sure I have this right. You are fighting against something you support? So then you would be filing suit against your own beliefs. I would appreciate any response.
This will respond to the questions you raise about the descriptive video argument, which is being so badly misrepresented on the Internet. The National Federation of the Blind is supporting a policy that was adopted and subsequently reaffirmed after thorough discussion at our National Conventions. This policy seeks to advance freedom of expression and equal access to information.
Let me begin by observing that the National Federation of the Blind is sometimes controversial (from the point of view of the less well‑informed); it is sometimes determined (those who do not like the positions we take would say mule‑headed); but it is never foolish. We do not fight things we support. There are those who say the NFB has, with venality aforethought, joined the motion picture magnates to fight the blind. Sometimes those painting this dire picture allege or suggest that the Federation has taken this mangy position with the prospect of gain in mind-‑financial reward. Those making such charges either do not have all the facts or are willingly misrepresenting the truth. They may think the Federation has as little principle as they do.
As you point out in your e-mail, the Federation has supported descriptive video in the past, both politically and financially. The organization has never adopted a policy opposing this service and has encouraged its development and promulgation. Every year at the Convention, we provide space and time for the presentation of audio‑described movies, and we print information about the presentation in the formal Convention Agenda. Furthermore, we have supported the service in other ways.
The policy of the Federation is that we believe matters of commercial interest and matters of information which are presented visually for the public at large should be provided in audible form. However, we do not believe that audible descriptions of entertainment should be mandated by law. The Motion Picture Association is apparently arguing that audible descriptions of visual material (regardless of its importance or purpose) cannot be required because to do so would violate the First Amendment. We believe that audible descriptions are sometimes of sufficient importance that they must be required to give equal access to information for the blind. However, we do not believe everything that is visual must be described. We think access to information is essential as a matter of civil rights, but access to entertainment is not. We also believe that there should be room for freedom of expression.
It is an oft‑repeated claim that a picture is worth a thousand words. If this is so, descriptive video cannot hope to provide more than a tiny fraction of that which is presented visually. Consequently we in the NFB make a distinction between straight information and artistic presentation. Information such as telephone numbers, names of individuals, warnings about impending bad weather, and the like should be articulated. We think the law should require this. Other presentations, which are artistic in character, should be verbalized if we can persuade the artistic presenters to do it. We believe that artists should have freedom to express themselves. We believe it is not reasonable to demand that Leonardo Da Vinci make an attempt to describe the Mona Lisa so that blind people can get the same impression that sighted people do. Visual art is by its nature visual. Describing it may have value, but the law should not demand it.
For an analogy consider the situation of the deaf. To provide a visual expression of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with sufficient detail to give a deaf person the same experience that a hearing person gets, would be an impossibility. It would be possible, perhaps, to perform the Fifth Symphony, run it through a synthesizer, and display it as patterns of light on a video screen. However, the essence of the experience would be altered. To demand that an orchestra go to the trouble and expense of displaying the Fifth Symphony visually is unreasonable.
We believe that prime-time TV entertainment and movies are presentations of artistic talent. We believe it is highly desirable to describe them so that the blind, along with the sighted, may enjoy them. However, we think freedom of expression should permit the artist (if the artist is particularly boneheaded) to leave the description out. In other words, we do not think artistic expression should be dictated by law.
As you can tell, the National Federation of the Blind is considerably more sophisticated than those who have been telling the public that we don't know what we are doing. Our thousands of members in Convention assembled discussed the position the Federation should take and voted to adopt our current policy more than once. We have taken this position because we recognize that, for every accommodation demanded, a price will necessarily be paid in money, in acceptance of the blind in the greater society, in the influence blind people can have, and in good will. A balance must be maintained which gives the blind what we need for equal access without disadvantages that outweigh it. We of the National Federation of the Blind have adopted our policy with this in mind.
We have filed a lawsuit in Federal Court to demand that essential information be provided auditorily. Our suit also demands that the FCC not misapply the law by saying that entertainment cannot exist unless it is described. It begins with prime-time TV programming, moves on to the night club, becomes a part of Little League baseball, and expands to all of the millions of visual displays that people watch with such enjoyment. It is important to include blind people in all activities of society. It is equally important to do so in a way that provides blind people with the characteristics that make acceptance and integration possible.
Marc Maurer, President
NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND