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The Braille Monitor,  May 2001 Edition
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From the Listservs: More about Descriptive Video


     From the Editor: During the past month the various listservs conducted by the NFB have been filled with conversation about descriptive video and what the NFB is or is not thinking or doing about the Federal Communications Commission's decision to mandate fifty hours a quarter of video-described prime-time programming from each of the four television networks: ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. Note that the issue has nothing to do with audio-described films, which have been produced now for quite a while and certainly will continue to be so in the future. The matter under discussion and consideration is entertainment television programs. During the FCC's original comment period the staff received hundreds of letters expressing strong preference for spoken weather or news crawls, voiced identification of speakers in news programs, and contact phone numbers read aloud in advertisements.

     In response the FCC added a bit of language to the mandate specifying that, when programming is interrupted for special news or weather bulletins, any facts printed on the screen must also be read aloud, which newscasters almost always do already. Moreover, the stipulation was made that crawls containing information for the public not important enough to interrupt programming must be accompanied by an audible warning tone, which again is no more than current practice most places. Voicing that emergency crawl information was what we were asking for in the first place, so in effect none of the visually available information many of us have been pressing for is actually mandated in the FCC order.

     What follows is a selection of e-mail messages, most from NFB members across the country and all raising important issues for consideration in this discussion. Here they are:


Mike Freeman, Washington State

     While sounding reasonable enough, your message contains several false premises, to wit:

     (1) You say that leaders of NFB have determined [that is, imposed] the position of the organization. Wrong. Resolutions have been passed at several NFB conventions concerning what policy should be, about descriptive video; Mr. Wales' message gives the history in some detail.

Mike Freeman
Mike Freeman

     (2) You say that each person should speak "their own mind" and not have "their position" determined by the leadership. Aside from the grammatical error‑‑mismatched number between noun and possessive, which is regrettably all too common in society today, this is based upon the false premise that we have surrendered our rights to free expression and debate. Wrong. We can debate until the cows come home. But once a decision is made within the organization, we support it to the public until the policy is changed. That's a democratic organization in action. This does not imply that we don't think for ourselves; it merely implies that we close ranks in dealing with the public in our own self‑interest.

     (3) In essence, what we are arguing about is whether descriptive video is a right or a privilege. We of NFB say it's a privilege at best and not a right and that treating it as a right may well lead to a de‑emphasis on the part of the broadcast industry from what really ought to be essential rights‑‑provision of the same information in audio form that is shown in print on the screen.

     And, by the way, how are we taking away what the blind have never had? ACB and others keep framing the discussion in terms of Big Bad NFB depriving the blind of essential rights. We deny that this is a correct reading of the situation. Why are you so afraid to discuss the essential premises, focusing instead upon the supposed sins of NFB leaders? Is it that your case is weak? I shall stop there.

       Mike Freeman


Nathanael Wales, California

     I wholeheartedly agree with what Steve, Mike, and Melissa have already said on this topic. I'd only add to their points that I would consider a blind person in tornado country being unable to have text access to a weather warning of a coming tornado during a sitcom mandated by the federal government to have descriptive video to be the ultimate and certainly an awful and potentially tragic irony.

Nathanael Wales
Nathanael Wales

     As I read the release from the American Council of the Blind as posted on this list, I was infuriated by the arrogance and deliberate ignorance of the ACB leaders quoted in the release. The National Federation of the Blind is a democratic organization, and its leaders don't use arcane parliamentary tactics to manipulate discussion, debate, and decision‑making. Furthermore, our position on descriptive video has been democratically voted on by resolution of our National Convention, most recently our 2000 National Convention with some 2,500 members from all fifty-two affiliates present and voting. Anyone who knows about the history of resolutions at our National Conventions knows that controversial resolutions are discussed and debated both in committee and on the convention floor. Consider the debate on the Unified Braille Code resolutions in 1996 and 1999, the accessible pedestrian signals resolutions in 1999 and 2000, and the two descriptive-video resolutions in 2000.    Yes, two resolutions on descriptive video were proposed last year. One pretty much took the ACB's current position: mandate it for entertainment programs. The second, which was recommended a "Do Pass" by the Resolutions Committee and passed by a vast majority of the convention registrants, is the one we currently stand by: entertainment is nice, but access to important text on the screen (such as weather warnings, newscast information, and telephone numbers in commercials) is much more important and should be the first type of information to be subject to federal mandate. The first resolution could have been brought to the convention floor for a vote by five affiliates after its "Do Not Pass" recommendation by the Resolutions Committee, and its merits over the position of the second resolution could have been debated on the convention floor.

     The Federation's position on descriptive video was arrived at by a democratic process and a democratic vote of some 2,500 members from across the country. If others want to join and let their positions and feelings be known, they are welcome in my mind to do so. Indeed I invite them, and I think all of us would invite them. And if they don't wish to join us and wish to speak for themselves (I wonder how their numbers would compare to 2,500), they can do that too. But I will be damned if they will call this organization a "traitor." I will be damned if they will insinuate that we are not democratic and fair. And I will be damned if they will publicly call for disunity and imply that disunity can be had in this organization.

     At any rate, those are the facts about the process which the ACB's release deliberately misrepresents to the public. And those are my feelings about it.

Nathanael Wales


Steve Jacobson, Minnesota

     Since this subject is being discussed on multiple lists by mostly different people, I am taking the liberty to respond on several lists. Hopefully those of you who get this more than once will be forgiving.

Steve Jacobson
Steve Jacobson

     It is obvious that people feel very strongly about this issue, and when this comes up, we always get caught up in whether video descriptions are good or bad, or whether the NFB is in favor or against them. Regardless of what the facts may be, it is obvious that we will have differences. However, my understanding of the issue is that we, the NFB, opposed the requirement that the government mandate descriptions. The opposition was not to video descriptions in general. I personally think there are some very good arguments against mandating video descriptions, but those arguments do not imply that such descriptions should not be provided. Others have even argued in the past that another strategy would have achieved more in a shorter period of time. Therefore, while we may not all agree, it doesn't make sense to argue about something over which there is no serious disagreement, whether they are good or bad.

     As I see it, the questions are more along these lines: Are video descriptions as essential as captioning, especially in entertainment; and is government mandating the most effective approach? Mike Freeman's observations on a couple of the lists that video descriptions are subjective means, in my not‑so‑legally‑informed opinion, that this issue will be a sort of lightning rod for those in the entertainment industry who want to fight any kind of government involvement in controlling the industry as an infringement of their freedom of expression. Even if they are found to be wrong in the end, one wonders if waving a red cape in front of the entertainment bull is the best way for us to get what we want. There is even a chance that they could be found to be right in the courts, that the government can't tell artists how to present their art even to us. Again, is mandating the only strategy?

     I am very much disheartened by the ACB comments on this--not by the fact that they don't see things as I see them--but rather the tone. The information I have on this subject is what all of the participants on these lists have read, so there is nothing new here. When this proposal was discussed originally, the ACB's idea of compromise was to include our concern that textual information needs to be made accessible to us as blind people. I base this conclusion on the fact that ACB members commented on lists that we shouldn't complain since our concern about textual information had been met. This was not much of a concession on their part since they would likely have supported this anyway, yet it was held up as an example of how they accommodated us.

     Nothing was ever said in what I read that indicated there was any room for compromise even though there have been a number of statements over the past few years to the effect that we all need to work together. Further, name‑calling does nothing to resolve the differences at hand, and I consider the statement "We can only view the Federation as a traitor to our community" to be name‑calling. Finally, consider this statement: "We urge their members to exercise their rights as thinking citizens and people who wish to participate fully in their communities, by refusing to acquiesce to the will of their leadership, which appears to be more co‑opted by industry than motivated to serve the needs of people who are blind." Those of us who were members in the 1970's will recognize this approach as one often used by some of the more regressive agencies of that time. Basically one can restate this approach as, "If you don't agree with me, I will reduce your effectiveness by stimulating internal friction within your organization and label you as unthinking." Another version of this approach was "We like your members; it is just your leaders we don't like."

     I had hoped we had left this sort of manipulative behavior behind us, and it really seems to me to be a giant step back in developing some degree of understanding and cooperation. Hopefully we can avoid letting this sort of manipulative and inflammatory language cause us to forget that most of us have taken whatever positions we have taken only after giving the issues some careful and serious thought. We are not always going to agree with the ACB, and we're not always going to agree with one another. However, to write off disagreement as the result of being co‑opted by the entertainment industry is itself simply a way of avoiding serious discussion of the issue.

     Please understand that the harshness that might be read into this message is only intended towards those who believe disagreeing with their personal point of view constitutes lack of thought or being a traitor to one's community. If we disagree on issues, let's discuss them openly and with thought. However, let's discuss the real issue here: what constitutes a right versus what might be advantageous to have. When is mandating necessary and when do we look at other strategies? That is really where there seems to be disagreement; I haven't read anyone saying that nobody should have video descriptions.

Steve Jacobson


Melissa Lehman, Wisconsin

     I'm going to try to respond to your post as well as I can. Let me just start by telling you all that I'm by no means an expert in this area, but I'm going to present the issues as I understand them. Please, someone correct me if I'm wrong.     First of all, I don't believe the NFB has ever said that we, as an organization, are against descriptive videos or television programs. The position we have taken is only that we believe vital information (weather alerts, information flashed up on the screen during newscasts, and even phone numbers put on the TV screen during commercials), are more important than narration for a sitcom. Some people might not agree with this viewpoint, but personally I would rather know what the weather alert says than what Dr. Mark Green on "ER" just did (I choose "ER" because it's my favorite show).

Melissa Lehman
Melissa Lehman

     It is my understanding that the NFB has said that TV stations should be required to provide all of this important information instead of just having a certain number of hours a week or month of described programs and still have weather alerts and other information blind people want and often need inaccessible. The NFB, to the best of my knowledge, has never said we oppose TV networks' putting described programs on their stations; we just want to make sure important information isn't overlooked in the scramble to get mainstream TV shows described. In a perfect world all programs would be described, just as all, or at least a good number, of programs are close-captioned for the hearing impaired. I believe this will happen eventually, but I think vital information is a good first step instead of having random shows described and then having to fight for weather alerts and phone numbers to be voiced.

     I understand that many might not agree with this position. That's absolutely your right as a citizen. I am posting this message with the facts as I understand them, simply so people can be more informed about what the NFB is standing for and then decide to agree or disagree based on both sides of the story as we know them. Again, if anyone thinks I have the facts wrong, please correct me. I want to understand the facts as best I can so I can make an informed decision on this issue and not react too strongly with accusations against one group or the other with only one side of the story. Sorry for the long post; it's just my two cents' worth.


Melissa Lehman


Mark Riccobono, Wisconsin


Mark Riccobono
Mark Riccobono

     Please forgive me if the point I wish to make has already been stated; I have not followed all of the posts on this topic. I have seen a number of e-mails which say, to paraphrase, that descriptive video is just like closed captioning, and, if it is good enough for people who are deaf, it should be the same for the blind. This misses the point. Examine how closed captioning came about. It started on news programs and other information-focused rather than entertainment-focused programming. Eventually corporations and foundations began to realize that providing funding for closed captioning programs was a worthwhile thing to do. It grew from there, and now it is readily available through the entertainment industry and through some continued support from other businesses and foundations.

     I cannot honestly speak to whether this came about because of a mandate, but regardless, I think the process is important. We need to demonstrate that information is important; and, in providing such information, there is also benefit related to the cost. I believe that the point of view which compares closed captioning to the current debate over descriptive video does not take into account the history and the implications being demanded through the FCC mandate as it is stated.


                                                Mark Riccobono


     There you have a selection of NFB comments about this subject. To end this discussion, here is a post to Paul Edwards, President of the ACB, that was picked up from an ACB list and reposted to an NFB list. Mr. Ducharme is a lawyer who worked for a while for the ACB in governmental relations. His association with the ACB Washington office ended when Charles Crawford arrived.


Mr. Edwards:

     After reading ACB's press release of April 4, I am struggling with your notion that the entertainment industry suit to block the forced provision of DVS services by the federal government is somehow an "assault on the rights of people who are blind." Where is such a "right" enumerated either under our Constitution or in the federal code? With all due respect to your exalted position as President of ACB, I think you are a bit confused about what is and is not a right that inures to Americans. While DVS services may well be a good thing for many of us who cannot see the screen, it is a much worse thing to compel private citizens (whoever they may be, grouped as corporations or not) at the point of a gun to give their private property to another citizen.

     The mere fact of something being "good" does not make it a "right." In a free society respectful of private property and free enterprise, the government simply cannot appropriate the goods of one citizen for the benefit of another just because another citizen may want or need that good. It becomes a very slippery slope when the power of the federal government is used by one group or another to steal private property from one person or group to benefit another person or group. What I am saying here is not exactly radical if you have even the most basic understanding of our republican form of government or our history. If merely being "good" was sufficient to confer a right on a citizen, then we would all have the "right" to free ice cream, government-sponsored trips to Disney World, or for that matter anything considered desirable at the local shopping mall.

     I realize that your comments must be framed as an advocate for your organization, but the intellectual dishonesty is palpable. Wouldn't it be truly better to positively engage the entertainment industry as a consumer group to achieve your goals rather than trying to use the government as a club over their heads? When purportedly educated people like yourself engage in such a dishonest diatribe, it undermines not only your own genuine authority but our very future as a free people.

     I would highly recommend a short treatise entitled "The Law" by Frederick Bastiat for your edification. Please be assured that I am writing you only in response to my personal reaction to the ACB press release as I am not a member of NFB and am in no way affiliated with the entertainment or television industries. Thanks for your time,

                                                   Al Ducharme

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