Walking the Talk of Inclusivity

By Yelena Makarczyk
Vubiquity Localization & Accessibility Services
September 13, 2023

As the market and regulatory environment demand that our industry meets the needs of individuals who use audio description or closed captions to enjoy movies and TV shows, one would hope we’d have strong representation of these very communities in our professional ranks. In reality, there is significant room for improvement.

Deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind, visually impaired and partially sighted contributors are not nearly as present in everyday media localization processes as they should be. This is an unfortunate circumstance, considering the aging population that is going to increasingly want and need these services. The 65-and-older demographic is expanding rapidly as a percentage of the total population, most strikingly the 85+ subset.

Tony, who works with us on a freelance basis on the accessibility team, is a 42-year-old mentor to English-language closed-captioning experts. He is fully deaf in one ear and has 40 percent hearing loss in the other. Though fluent now, Tony didn’t grow up using American Sign Language, as most of his hearing loss came about as an adult. Throughout life, he has battled a common misperception about his capabilities. “Most people imagine us, in the deaf community, to be somewhat intellectually impaired,” Tony says. “It’s untrue and unfair, but not surprising, given the fact that extra effort does have to be made by fully hearing people to communicate. Many simply won’t try. They’d rather make convenient assumptions.”

Tony enjoys teaching his trainees to think like someone who is not getting as much information through sound as a hearing viewer but is also likely to comprehend more visually than the average person does. “Yes, it’s important that we know a dog is barking in the distance if it’s contributing to the ambiance of a horror movie,” Tony explains. “But unless it’s plot-pertinent – like the barking of a chained-up guard dog – it’s not necessary for us to know every time he or she barks. On the other hand, when the heroine leaves a door open behind her when she enters a house, deaf viewers are much more likely to have noticed that than your average hearing person.” Tony also emphasizes attention to psychological details. “I once saw a captioned version of a popular movie that made no reference to the thick New York accents of the leading stars nor the strong Southern accents of their surrounding cast. To say that this missing element was crucial to fully appreciating the movie is a major understatement.”  

Tony also trains descriptive writers for the blind, sharing a trade secret about this work. “Whenever possible, get a copy of the screenplay, because that is truly what screenwriters do – write for people who must imagine in their minds what’s happening on-screen.”

Including more professionals with visual impairment in the creative process is often the result of being open-minded when the opportunity arises. For example, in areas of localization that we don’t often think of as accessibility, such as dubbing, a French creative team we work with collaborates with an actress with a visual impairment. A dubbing director on this team describes her this way: “S. has a repertoire of character voices that is extremely creative and seemingly inexhaustible. She prints out scripts in very large type and can follow the lip movement on-screen to the degree necessary. Her disability doesn’t affect anything. Except, no doubt, it intensifies her pre-existing talent for mimicry.”

(S. didn’t want her name used, as she doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a “blind” actress. “I am an actress specializing in voiceover work,” she says. “Period.”)

It’s a fact that deaf creatives in the industry are too often passed over for work. And the same is true for the community of talented experts with visual impairment. As localization ambassadors, we do our best to make sure movies and TV shows are seen by the largest audiences possible and resonate with all types of people around the world. However, providing excellent captioning and audio description is part of a crucial feedback loop that encourages and demands greater inclusion of these communities in every part of the process, whether for a small indie gem or a massive blockbuster.

In another example, we recently subtitled a documentary in which a deaf Holocaust survivor spoke about his experience using a hybrid version of Hebrew and Hungarian sign language. It is some of the most striking footage I’ve had the honor of watching. In recent years, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing a sign language interpreter standing behind a government official during important public announcements. Yet with this documentary it struck me that this was the inverse – it was the hearing people who needed an interpreter for an almost-extinct sign language from the 1930s.

One final point to consider is that these issues extend beyond hearing and sight. As translators, sometimes we are too close to the matter at hand and are unable to see the forest for the trees. Because of this, we must rely on monolingual colleagues to ask us, “Why are you translating it in that manner?” or comment “I don’t quite get the translation of that joke.” To avoid the pitfalls of being too focused on the details, dynamic group effort helps drive the quality control process to its peak. We need others’ input and diverse perspectives to fully produce the best localization services and to ensure content is truly accessible to the largest global audiences possible. Quite simply, weighing input from multiple parties turns good translation into great translation.

So, let’s all take full advantage of artisan creative brainpower – of all sensory expression – as we gladly partake in this mission and make it art for the world to enjoy.