This article was originally published in the 2015 Langara Journalism Review.
Accessible Media Inc. reporter Gary Steeves stands precariously close to the edge of a dock on Vancouver’s False Creek. He is rehearsing his lines while his guide dog, a six-year-old standard poodle named Bogart, stares distractedly at reflections on the water.
“Vancouver is a water city,” he states into a camera. Steeves and his crew are on Granville Island recording a national television clip to air as part of a larger series on transportation across Canada. “To my left is False Creek.” He pauses. “Actually, where is False Creek?”
Steeves was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa when he was a child. The genetic disease affected his peripheral vision. At first, he could see only an area the size of a human head. As he aged, his condition worsened to the point that he could see shapes, but not details.
“It’s behind you, and a bit to your left,” offers cameraman Amit Tandon. “Actually, say it’s to your left. It’s more accurate.”
While most television viewers can see that False Creek is indeed to Steeves’ left, he works explanatory details like this into his script for the benefit of the channel’s visually impaired audience. AMI has adopted what it calls “embedded descriptive video” as a standard. No b-roll or shots make the final cut unless they’ve recorded EDV to go with it.
Traditionally, descriptive video is provided by a third-party voice over. The play-by-play audio is the equivalent of closed captioning for the visually impaired. “That voice can be really obtrusive, especially for people who can see,” explains Tandon.
Toronto-based AMI is the only national television channel with 100 per cent closed captioning and descriptive video available for all of its original and syndicated content. It is a must-carry service, as deemed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, meaning it comes with all basic digital cable packages.
Before the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver, AMI’s television channel aired mostly classic television re-runs in the flavour of I Love Lucy. AMI began creating custom content when covering the international sporting event and has been increasing it ever since. The not-for-profit organization also offers radio services and a French-language television station.
The vision AMI has for its optically impaired audience is to be able to enjoy television programming with their friends and family who can see. “We shouldn’t have a moment where a sighted person is getting information that a non-sighted person is missing,” says producer John Harris.
Being a visually impaired reporter comes with its challenges, not just for Steeves but for the whole news crew. When Tandon, Harris, Steeves and Bogart were in London for the 2012 Paralympics, they put together a 10-minute package every day.
“Whenever we wanted to interview a big shot, like the [gold-medal winning Canadian skiers] McKeever brothers —they were a big deal in London—there would be a huge line of media waiting. The media pit managers would be flashing these signs, ‘30 seconds’ or ‘10 seconds’ to signal to the reporter that they needed to wrap up the interview,” Tandon describes.
Steeves, of course, completely missed the visual cues so the crew had to come up with a different signal. They decided Harris would tap Steeves on the leg with a cane from out of the frame.
“Another challenge is lining Gary up with the camera,” says Tandon. “He doesn’t know where I am so it’s on me to minimize the amount of time he’s out of the frame.”
For his part, Steeves says he has to do a lot of memorization. “I can’t just have a script there to reference.” He constantly rehearses between takes while Bogart dutifully sits at his feet.
The team says they are blazing a new path by setting high standards for their embedded description. “It’s like trying to operate with a fourth dimension in mind,” says Tandon. Harris explains it as radio for television. “Everything we’re filming, we talk about it as though you can’t see it, because a lot of our viewers can’t.”