J.J. Abrams wanted to revive the visual spirit of 1977's Star Wars with his trilogy-starter, The Force Awakens. His back-to-basics approach bled into character designs and special effects shots. The movie would be a confluence of nostalgia and state-of-the-art technology, an adventure for all ages -- and every pair of eyes.
Most of us take watching for granted. If the biggest blockbuster of all time arrives to our local multiplex, you go. If a new Netflix series drops, you binge. When the series finale of an award-winning TV show airs, you and the world tune in to experience it together. Now, imagine you couldn't see the screen.
According to a 2014 report from the National Center for Health Statistics, an estimated 22.5 million adult Americans say they "have trouble" seeing or are unable to see at all. Blindness is an insurmountable hurdle for the rest of the population to imagine, tampering with every aspect of daily existence, but overlooked are the impairment's cultural blows. As Kim Charlson, president of the American Council of the Blind, put it in a recent interview, "Movies are such an important part of our culture and society, people talk about them every day, it's a social outing. People who are blind want the same experience."
The good news: audio technology, and a little authoritative nudging, are dismantling the obstacle. In October 2010, Congress passed the Federal Communications Commission's Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), an update to existing laws that required major TV networks to provide video description for a minimum number of hours of programming. Currently, ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, and any non-broadcast network with 50,000 or more subscribers must tailor at least 50 hours of each annual quarter's programming with video description tracks (and a proposal made by the FCC in March 2016 hopes to up the requirement to 87.5 hours). Line-blurring streaming platforms have followed suit; insistence by the American Council of the Blind led Netflix to add audio description tracks to shows. The first? Daredevil, the action series about Marvel's blind hero.
Now the movies are getting their due, both with in-theater audio setups allowing blind viewers to hear descriptions through headphones, and streaming releases with built-in descriptive tracks. One major release that bellowed through the blind community: The Force Awakens, which you can now download off iTunes with audio description.
These tracks are more nuanced than simple stage direction, capturing an actor's nuance or a lingering camera angle. They're also hyper-succinct, popping up between dialogue and wrapping up before essential sound effects. The Star Wars movies are more difficult to paint with words, even if you're fluent in Wookiee. The alien populations and soaring spacecrafts don't exist on Earth -- how do you convey that information? To give you an idea of how the blind "watch" the highest-grossing movie in movie history, here's how the narration describes a few choice moments: