Originally created 11/18/99

Regulators consider 'captioning' for the blind



WASHINGTON -- Chet Avery picks the television shows he tunes into very carefully. Dramatic programs with lots of dialogue are fine.

Avery is blind. That means shows with high-action content and little conversation are difficult for him to follow.

"When you watch television you rely upon the kindness of your wife or members of your family to fill in when there is silence," said Avery, 62, a retired Education Department administrator who lives in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Va. "I know some blind people that never watch television because of the frustration. Television is not for them."

Federal regulators and advocates for the blind Scyçthe time has come to give those with impaired vision access akin to what the deaf have now with closed captioning. The Federal Communications Commission is expected to offer proposals Thursday on how to mandate video description services, which describe the scene and action not captured in dialogue, for television programming.

It's part of a broader FCC effort to make technology more reachable for people with disabilities.

"We must ensure they're full participants in the information age," FCC Chairman Bill Kennard said in an interview. "If you think of it as an afterthought, it doesn't get done."

That's one reason regulators and advocates want to act now so they can set the stage to bring those services along as television makes the transition from analog to digital.

There are 1.6 million blind people in the nation, but as many as 9 million have vision problems such that they could benefit from television description services, says Corinne Kirchner, director of policy research at the American Foundation for the Blind.

Blind activists say the service will mean one less obstacle they face in daily life.

"If I as a blind person don't have access to what really happened during the presentation of a program, I am not able to communicate with my friends and associates on the same level," said Charlie Crawford, executive director of the American Council of the Blind.

Description services will also benefit people who have poor or failing vision and people with learning disabilities, said Margaret Pfanstiehl, chairwoman of the National Television Video Access Coalition.

"This is something that's going to affect millions of people," she said.

The service works like this: Descriptions of events are squeezed into the natural pauses already in the program. For example, television audiences could hear that a character in a scene is boarding a plane or decoding a computer program.

This is typically done using a separate audio track that audiences can switch on or off. A secondary soundtrack channel also is commonly used to provide Spanish language dubbing of programming.

Since 1993, all television sets manufactured in the United States have been equipped to receive this secondary audio track, typically at negligible costs to consumers.

The FCC's proposal will ask for comment on such issues as how much programming should include video description and whether certain shows -- for example, those during the prime-time slots -- should offer the service first.

Already, some programming -- including a number of shows carried by public broadcasting stations -- offer descriptive services. WGBH in Boston began in the mid-1980s narrating such shows as "Masterpiece Theater" and "Nature." WGBH also has done description services for old movies now shown on "Turner Classic Movies."

Broadcasters generally have opposed being required to offer video description because of the costs involved and concerns that it would come at the expense of those programs offering Spanish language audio.

"Video description services would be burdensome for broadcasters, and given the advent of digital television, this is not the time," said National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Jeff Bobeck.