HBO's ‘My Brilliant Friend’ Discriminates Against Blind People

The show will not have a feature that allows people with visual disabilities to watch. The rest of the network's programming doesn't either.
Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti as Elena and Lila in “My Brilliant Friend.”
Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti as Elena and Lila in “My Brilliant Friend.”
Eduardo Castaldo/HBO

I’ve watched the trailer for “My Brilliant Friend,” the first installment of HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, about 30 times.

I’m not joking. I’ve been watching it three to five times in a sitting, ever since it came out. Every time I tear up.

But the reason I get emotional doesn’t have so much to do with the fact that it’s a book series that I very much relate to and love. What really gets me is that I have Stargardt disease — a condition similar to macular degeneration, which renders me legally blind, or having low vision — and probably won’t be able to watch the series.

Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels were written in Italian before being translated for a global audience and HBO has decided that the dialogue in its hotly anticipated new series will stay true to the source material (not just Italian but a Neapolitan dialect), which means it’ll be entirely in subtitles.

It’s a cool move, and HBO has patted itself on the back for its devotion to authenticity, especially since other Italy-set series, such as “Rome” and “The Young Pope,” had English dialogue.

But I can’t read subtitles. I can’t even read the notes my loved ones write on my birthday cards without someone’s help or a magnifier. I also can’t read street signs, which caused me to lose my driver’s license, uproot my entire life and move to New York City, which has better public transportation than my hometown, at age 29. It’s a similar story for countless other people with visual disabilities.

Many people with visual disabilities often rely on a feature called video description or audio description when they watch TV. It is a feature in which a narrator tells someone who can’t see well what is happening on the screen.

People with low vision don’t use it all the time. For example, I can usually watch TV with relative ease, just as long as I’m sitting a few inches from the screen. But those who are blind and have more severe cases of low vision depend on it. HBO won’t be including audio description for “My Brilliant Friend,” though.

With HBO’s decision to not feature audio description, the premium cable network has decided to embrace one culture while completely alienating another that already has to navigate life with endless obstacles.

But this isn’t anything new. The network has been ignoring the basic needs of the blind and low-vision community for as long as it’s been in existence.

HBO confirmed to HuffPost that it does not offer video description services for any of its programming. In this case, audio description could also have easily been used to translate the Italian dialogue into English, according to Joel Snyder, president of Audio Description Associates, a company that makes video descriptions.

Snyder said it could be done much like an audiobook. For example, one audio describer or voice actor could read the script’s action lines in one voice or tone and then use a distinctively different voice or tone for the dialogue. It could also be done with multiple voice actors, one of which reads the action lines and another (or others) who read or act out the dialogue.

“A skilled audio describer who has researched pronunciations could even make the subtitles more meaningful,” he told me.

Though it may seem like the final product could be confusing to listen to, Diane Johnson, president and CEO of an audio description company called Descriptive Video that does audio descriptions for Netflix original series such as “House of Cards,” “BoJack Horseman,” “Dear White People” and “American Vandal,” told me that isn’t the case. For instance, when she was first asked by the streaming service to do audio description for their original series “Narcos,” a show that uses numerous languages, she was concerned there would be “a lot going on.”

But after conducting focus groups for people in Spanish and English who listened to the video description for the show, she realized it could be done in a clear manner.

So, if an audio description company can figure out how to tackle a complicated script and deliver a clear product that aids millions of potential viewers, why wouldn’t HBO want to take advantage of that? Especially since Johnson told me it could be done quickly and it is affordable

“Frankly, it’s insulting, ablelist and reinforces the notion in society that people with disabilities are less than those without.”

Personally, I’m new to being ostracized by HBO because “My Brilliant Friend” is the first of its original series in the U.S. to be aired in another language, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Yet, people who are completely blind or have more severe cases of low vision have never been able to watch any HBO series, regardless of its huge presence in American culture, because the network has never really offered audio description. Snyder told me he is aware of just one project that HBO made an audio description for — 2009’s “Monica & David,” a documentary about two people with Down syndrome getting married — because his company did it. He also noted that it was done only because the producer wanted it.

Could you imagine how isolating it must feel to be hanging out with your friends, family or colleagues and not be able to chime in with your “Game of Thrones” theories? Or never being able to fully grasp the cultural significance of “The Sopranos” or “Sex and the City”? Or being blind and not being able to engage with an HBO documentary about being blind?

The decision to simply not include video description has real-life consequences for those who are blind and have low vision.

“There’s a lot of people that are unemployed that are blind and vision impaired,” Johnson told me. “And they’ll tell you part of the reason is that they feel like they’re socially inept. … They feel alienated. Why would we do that to anyone?”

Frankly, it’s insulting, ablelist and reinforces the notion in society that people with disabilities are less than those without.

The network has received pushback from the community for not including video descriptions. There have been petitions and published mentions of this injustice. Yet HBO won’t budge, nor did it offer me any explanation as to why it does not offer audio description when I reached out to the company.

HBO is not legally required to provide audio description, unfortunately. In 2010, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed, with help from Stevie Wonder, the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, a law that requires advanced technology to be accessible to people with disabilities — and this includes audio descriptions for television and movies. Yet, the CVAA, which is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, currently requires only nine television channels — the top four broadcast networks and top five cable channels — to provide audio description. The current list includes ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, Discovery, HGTV, History, TBS and USA.

A representative from the FCC told me that HBO’s Nielsen ratings are not high enough for it to be required by law to provide video description.

Interestingly enough, HBO does offer closed captioning, which provides subtitles for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

That, to me, is completely confusing. Why would HBO allow some who are disabled to enjoy its shows rather than all disabled people?

It’s a shame, it’s discriminatory and it needs to stop.

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