Accessibility: A Vital Step in Making a Film Fully Inclusive

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

As a filmmaker, you’ve worked for years to bring your vision to life. And you want your film to reach as many people as possible, right? But without accessible elements, a large portion of the population is left out.  

Accessibility consists of including specific features so that people who are blind, low vision, deaf, or hard of hearing can fully experience a film. 

While I love this industry, accessibility features are often treated as an afterthought, resulting in experiences that quite literally leave a lot to be desired. Many projects are missing them altogether.

Everyone deserves to experience the power of film. And if a person is unable to experience a film because it lacks accessibility features, they’re not able to participate. That’s discrimination and inequality, plain and simple.

How to Make Your Film Accessible 

What elements will you need? A transcript, captions, and audio description. The earlier this process is started, the richer it becomes.

I like to begin with captions. These include all dialogue and any pertinent auditory elements. Captions make your project accessible to people with hearing impairments. Ideally, they should appear as the dialogue or sound cue happens. 

Next up, the transcript! This consists of text that accompanies the film. It includes all visual and auditory information necessary for comprehension of the piece, including any text on screen. It’s beneficial for people who are blind, low vision, deaf, or hard of hearing. Take the text from your captions to cover the auditory information. Then, go through the film and add in all necessary visual elements (composition, performance, design elements, etc). 

Here’s an excerpt from the transcript for my short film, “Mel and Ruby”:

00:20 - [Closeup on Mel’s reflection in the bathroom mirror. Mel, a laid-back young woman with large expressive eyes, looks down at her hands, arms moving gently as she washes her hands. An intercom beeps and a muffled announcement says,] “Dr Travis --”

*Use quotations for dialogue and brackets for description. Insert the time code, so that the description matches up with that moment on screen. Finally, add your specific voice as a writer!

These visual descriptions can assist you with the audio description. It’s essentially voiceover added to the quiet moments in a film. For that reason, audio description must be more succinct than the visual descriptions in the transcript. Pare down so that the audience member can still experience some stillness. Consider if some of the visual information can be gleaned from auditory cues. For instance, if the actor is audibly weeping, you won’t need to include a description for that. Again, add your specific voice!

Here’s a sample of succinct, but specific audio description from “Mel and Ruby”: 

06:25 - Ruby is a statue of support, rubbing Mel’s back. 

Where is the industry at with accessibility?

Sundance’s 2021 festival included audio description for about half of their films. In addition, they hosted a panel called “Bridging the Gap” dedicated to audio description education. Sundance is highly influential in the industry and could inspire other filmmakers and festivals to follow suit. 

Streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV, Disney Plus, and Amazon Prime include audio description -- albeit only after lawsuits or pressure from the accessibility community. In 2020, HBO Max reached a settlement for their lack of audio description. 

Sony developed new technology such as closed captioning glasses and audio description devices, providing a much-needed update to accessibility features for movie theaters. However, not every theater offers these features (despite becoming a requirement in 2018).  

Accessibility Benefits Everyone

Accessible features help people with disabilities feel acknowledged and supported. I think of it as a human right. We all have a right to experience art fully. Accessibility makes that possible. 

Furthermore, accessible features can be an opportunity to further enhance a filmmaker’s artistic vision. For instance, the audio description could help sighted viewers appreciate some of the visual elements they might have missed. And when the transcript, captions, and audio description are approached with the same level of dedication as the crafting of the film itself, it ensures that accessible audiences have a fantastic experience of the film. 

If we are to build a brighter future in Hollywood, then we must include accessibility as part of that process. Who knows? It could even bring about a more inclusive future in society as a whole. 

*Scribely is a fantastic company that can create accessibility elements for your film. Visit their website here: ScribelyTribe.com

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About the Author

Julia Manis
Julia Manis is an actor, writer, and producer. Her short film "Mel & Ruby" was an official selection at several film festivals, most notable Sherman Oaks Film Festival. Past film credits include: “She Had it Coming,” “Last Three Days,” and “Inconvenient.” She studied at the prestigious Orange County School of the Arts and has her BFA in Acting from USC and has been living in LA ever since. She currently studies at Nancy Banks Studios and is a member of The Road Theater Company.

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