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Meet the blind audio engineers making it easier for people who can't see to watch movies


These audio engineers are making it easier for blind people to enjoy movies

There is a group of people tucked away in an unassuming office building in Northridge, CA who are making it easier for blind people to watch movies.

They are part of Audio Eyes, a full-service studio making audio descriptions for some of the biggest television shows and movies out there, and these audio engineers, voice-over artists and editors also happen to be blind.

Audio description is the narration of visuals to help blind people understand a TV show - for instance, when there is no dialogue.

The company was started in 2000 by Rick Boggs, a blind voice-over artist, actor and an advocate for the visually impaired, and when he opened Audio Eyes, he made it a point to hire people with disabilities.

"I tried to just get a job in life," Boggs told Circa. "But there was so much discrimination, I couldn't get one. I realized I wasn't going to get hired anywhere, so I better figure out how to hire myself."

Now Boggs has a team of more than 20 voice-over artists, engineers and editors. About half of them are blind. Chris Snyder is one of them. He's the head audio engineer at Audio Eyes.

"The board that I use helps me a lot," Snyder said. "I've kind of memorized all of the functions of that that I need. So it's not as hard as people might think."

And having blind people doing the audio description might be exactly what's keeping this company so busy.

I realized I wasn't going to get hired anywhere, so I better figure out how to hire myself
Rick Boggs, Audio Eyes Founder

"The problem we have is we need to educate our clients because I end up in sometimes heated discussions with our customers who are telling us, 'No, no, no, you need to describe, 'There was a knock at the door,'" Boggs said.

He says he often has to convince his sighted clients that blind viewers aren't "dumb." "They know what a door closing sounds like," he says. "In fact, it's insulting to blind people to tell them what they don't need to know."

Audio Eyes is responsible for putting audio description on shows like "Modern Family," "Shark Tank" and a slew of Netflix favorites. And the workload is only getting bigger.

"Five, ten years ago, you used to see incremental growth in terms of how many hours of content are being described each year," Boggs said. "Now, it's increasing 200 percent, 300 percent, 400 percent per year."

By the end of 2017, Boggs estimates that Audio Eyes will have described more than 650 hours of content. Last year, it was 500 hours. He credits the surge in work to streaming companies like Netflix that have made a concerted effort to make their content accessible to everyone.

Circa News reached out to Netflix to see what was motivating the increase in audio-described content, but did not hear back.

Netflix last year signed a three-year deal with advocacy groups for the visually impaired, which obligates the streaming platform to make "reasonable efforts" to request audio description assets from studios.

Ben Pomeroy at the Braille Institute of Los Angeles says the increase in audio description is likely due to the mobilization of content-viewing.

"The media that is available to people with blindness and visual impairment has increased and improved dramatically over the last several years as mass-market, mainstream devices have become more accessible to this population," says Pomeroy.

"Podcasts, YouTube, Netflix, and various music platforms all include accessibility features that make the content available to this market either through specialized navigation features, audio descriptions or both."

The top nine broadcast networks are contributing, too. They're doing about 200 hours each every year, according to Boggs. But that's still only a fraction of the thousands of hours of content out there. Blind people around the country notice the dearth of audio-described content.

Jennifer Restle is a San Diego resident who was born completely blind. She says it bothers her that while shows like "Suits" have audio description versions of them made, they're not always available on streaming platforms.

"It's annoying," says Restle, who is also the president of the board of directors of Disability Rights California, an advocacy group for people with disabilities.

"Some people don't get that audio description isn't just for the blind. There are people who watch shows while making breakfast and could benefit from the descriptions."

"People don't understand the value of it," says Boggs. "We're hearing more and more stories about people who go, 'I love audio description because when I'm in the kitchen and I'm washing the dishes, I can just put it on.'"

Just how much the U.S. understands the value of audio description will be decided this month.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is set to decide whether or not to increase the required hours of audio description on the major networks from 4 to 7 hours a week.

Regardless of the outcome, the people at Audio Eyes remain committed to their community. A 2015 National Health Interview Survey estimates that there are about 23.7 million Americans who have experienced vision loss or are completely blind.

"Doing audio description as a blind person for blind people is one of the coolest feelings ever because I feel like I'm helping my own people," says Snyder. "I feel like I'm doing something that matters to people."

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