What would it mean if, instead of being “add-ons,” accessibility tools like captions and transcripts were built into a project from the ground up? What if instead of thinking about accessibility as “mere” additions only, we realized their incredible creative power? Listen to an interview between EIC Brandy Schillace and the intrepid Cheryl Green.
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Cheryl Green is a captioner, audio describer, freelance audio and video producer with acquired invisible disabilities that inform all of her work around making media equitable and accessible. In this episode, she joins Brandy Schillace (EIC) to answer a few questions: What would it mean if, instead of being “add-ons,” tools like captions and transcripts were built into a project from the ground up? What if instead of thinking about accessibility as technical additions only, we realized their incredible creative power? Questioning binaries of “abled” and “disabled” (much like questioning the binary of patient/doctor) reveals that there are no neat divisions. Inclusivity must be built into the very structure of our projects, and when this is accomplished, the result is collaborative community creation.
More from Cheryl Green:
WhoAmIToStopIt.com (podcast episode on transcripts for radio: WhoAmIToStopIt.com/pigeonhole-podcast-5-radio-transcripts)
Twitter and FB: @WhoAmIToStopIt
BRANDY SCHILLACE: Welcome back to the Medical Humanities Podcast. Today, I’m very happy to be bringing on Cheryl Green. Cheryl is a captioner, audio describer, freelance audio and video producer, and Member-Owner at New Day Films, who’s an acqui- who has acquired invisible disabilities that inform her work around making media equitable and accessible. Thank you so much for joining us today, Cheryl.
CHERYL GREEN: Well, thank you so much for having me.
BRANDY: I’m really excited to hear more about your audio work, particularly because I think so often, we produce content, and then only later, as an afterthought, think about its accessibility. A good example being I was late to the game in adding captions to the videos we do for Medical Humanities. So, I wonder, what is it like to have that at the forefront as you develop something?
CHERYL: Oh, that’s such a nice question. Most of my clients do it the traditional way, which is to make their media, whether it’s a podcast or video, and then later, when they realize that they have to add some piece of accessibility, they kind of—some people grudgingly, some people happily—will then look into figuring out how they add that. And most people end up needing to go a budget route, which I understand very much. I mean, everything I do is—I’m an independent media producer—everything I do is freelance contract work. I understand budgets very well, but I also understand that when we go for the most budget option of adding access, it’s usually really crappy.
CHERYL: And I think that when the focus is on compliance—oh, look, I added the captions—when we focus on compliance and we don’t focus on quality and equity and why, like the heart behind why you would have access, we end up with mostly very inaccurate, super error-filled, really low-quality crap. I mean, Rikki Poynter is a Deaf YouTuber who coined the word “craptions” to—
CHERYL: —to refer to what people call the auto-generated captions on YouTube.
CHERYL: They’re not. They’re subtitles. They’re auto-subtitles, but they’re craptions. They are absolute crap. And a lot of the, a lot of what happens when you don’t account for access at the beginning and you have to go with one of these companies is, even when it’s done by a human, they’re absolute craptions. A lot of my workload is recaptioning people’s films.
BRANDY: Right, right.
CHERYL: It’s awful. So, but I’m also a content creator. And so, for me, when I release my podcast, or—I am also an editor and producer on two other podcasts—the audio does not go out until the transcript is done. Like even though it’s a podcast, it’s not considered to be finished at all after the audio editing is done. There has to be the text transcript and provided in multiple ways: a downloadable PDF, which is not always accessible to screen readers. So, you know, you might wanna also do a Word document or Google Doc or paste it directly onto the website. So, I feel for people on a budget. But I think it’s more about shifting the mindset and shifting the paradigm to saying, this piece of content actually literally is not finished until we’ve added the access that we plan to add.
Some of my clients, I’ll find out six months later that they had some podcasts out they didn’t tell me about, and they’re waiting for a transcript. Or on the flip side, I’ll submit transcripts, and nearly a year goes by before they mention, “Oh, I’m about ready to upload your transcripts.” So, I’m like, it’s literally control C, control V.
CHERYL: It doesn’t take you a year.
BRANDY: Yeah. And I think that that gets us back to that idea of what perspective are you coming from, right? So, when you have somebody who creates work and they’re thinking of an audience principally made up of sighted, people who have hearing, you know, they think about an audience that does not actually have ability issues, then accessibility ends up being something that’s taken as read. And our theme this year at Medical Humanities is about what does accessibility mean? It’s a much broader concept. It’s not just, is there a ramp? Are there captions? It’s have you thought about this community that you are participating with? Have you made them part of your community, even more important? So, I wonder, could you respond to that partly by telling us more about your audio work that you’ve done? You said you’re producer, I think, on two different podcasts?
CHERYL: Yes. So, three. One is my own podcast, Pigeonhole, where I do everything. I do the recording, the engineering, editing, production.
BRANDY SCHILLACE: You’re a one stop shop! [laughs]
CHERYL: One stop shop! I do the transcripts myself, the blog posts, all that. I would say I promote it, but I don’t because—
BRANDY: Oh no!
CHERYL: —my life’s downfall is I am one of the worst marketers you’ll ever meet on anything. So, I put myself out there. But maybe somebody finds it, maybe they don’t. But I—
BRANDY: We’ll make sure we have a link on the blog that is attendant to this podcast so that everyone can find you.
CHERYL: [chuckles] Thank you. I also edit the audio and do the transcripts for DisArt’s podcast. DisArt is out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and they have a podcast called DISTopia. Which I can’t get over that name. I love it so much.
CHERYL: They only, they hired me because they’re doing a special series that’s related to COVID-19 life. It is kind of like oral history, really, but centered in this moment. So, I edit those and transcribe those episodes. And then I’m one of the editors on Alice Wong’s Disability Visibility Podcast.
CHERYL: I’ve been with her for a few years. And hello to my boss, Alice Wong!
CHERYL: And I also do all the transcripts for all the episodes for that. And then I can’t remember if there was some other part of the question that you asked.
BRANDY: Oh, just in those situations where the community, the disability community, is part of the larger community that you are intentionally reaching out to. Can you talk about how that changes the perspective? So, what I mean by that is so often, in addition to this concept of craptions, which I love, a lot of times, even really well-intentioned, well-meaning people don’t go far enough because they actually aren’t in communication with those communities. They don’t know what it takes to really be accessible. And so, you had mentioned briefly about even the kinds of downloads of transcripts are important to the story. Could you say more about, in something like Disability Visibility, well, you know that that’s your audience. How does that change the way you approach sort of from the ground up? I would just be interested to know how does that look, to those of us who are trying to do it right, but kind of coming from the other side?
CHERYL GREEN: Sure. So, I think the first step is kind of conceptual, and that is to say, have I thought about who’s in my audience? [chuckles]
CHERYL: Like, ‘cause you mentioned earlier, oh, people don’t think about disability community. I think where it starts is people don’t even ask themselves whether they are being super normative or not. Well, I’ve got a podcast about environmentalism. So, environmentalists will like that. Great. Here we go. OK. Well, there are environmentalists who need transcripts. But you stopped when you just said the topic of your show. So, and a lot of people think that only disability-related content should be made accessible, which never ceases to blow my mind.
CHERYL: So, for me, it starts with the concept of asking who is your audience? And I can’t speak for Alice and Disability Visibility Podcast, but I can say for mine, I don’t care one bit if non-disabled muggles check out my podcast ever. I really, my podcast is kind of weird and very insider. I have had people say, “I don’t know what that, what that…. It feels so insider. I feel like I don’t get it.” I’m like, “OK. Well, then it’s not for you.”
CHERYL: I don’t aspire to make something that everybody will like. My thing is for a targeted audience. It’s for Deaf and disabled, very politicized community. It’s not necessarily even for the impairment-based communities that I identify with because it’s not a medical focus show. And I think that a lot of people with my same diagnoses and impairments can’t even relate to the show because it’s not about those topics.
CHERYL: I think I’m sort of talking myself into a circle.
CHERYL: OK. So, there’s the concept of who might possibly be in the audience I wanna reach.
BRANDY: Right, right.
CHERYL: I guess conceptually, it’s always a good question, as a creator, who might be able to access this, and who is not gonna be able to access this and why.
CHERYL: So, one reason people can’t access your work is because they don’t have a good enough Internet connection. But another reason people can’t access your work is because you did not provide it in a way that they can access. And that’s another shift. We need to move away from saying, “Oh, people with this disability can’t do this thing and access my show.” And we need to focus more on creators. What can you do to make your show accessible?
CHERYL: Rather than focusing on what you think someone can or can’t do, how much access can you provide? How much are you willing to?
CHERYL: And how far will you go to find high-quality access? ‘Cause if you put effort into making a beautiful piece, and you pay top dollar or even medium dollar for the editors and color correction and sound sweetening, all this stuff, why would you go with budget access?!
BRANDY: Mm. Mmhmm.
CHERYL: Why do you think that for someone who can only access your film by reading the captions, why would you think that giving them substandard and inaccurate captions is good?
CHERYL: Like, that actually, they’re gonna have a bad experience with your film. But people who don’t need captions might have an excellent experience with it.
CHERYL: And so, that’s what we need to do, is start by asking those questions, and then figure out the budget.
CHERYL: If you can’t afford captions, is there something else you can cut corners on so that you can afford the captions?
BRANDY: Rather than treating that like the add-on that is sacrifice-able. I see what you’re saying.
And in a way, it’s your point about you know your audience really well for your podcast, and you know who you’re aiming for. And it’s a disabled, it’s a community of disability people. People who are interested in, who are themselves disabled. And you said it’s not even every kind of disability. But you know who they are. And you’re providing access to those people, but you’re not excluding. It’s not as though someone who didn’t have a disability couldn’t access to your podcast. They could access it. They might not understand it. The problem that we have with these others is that it doesn’t, you never get to the point of finding out if they understand the content. They can’t even access it.
CHERYL: Right, right! And I did an episode actually on my podcast about transcripts for radio and why we need them. And it was based on a real conversation where I talked to another audio professional who said he had transcripts of his stuff. I’m like, “Oh, finally! Yay! Do you post your transcripts?” He’s like, “No, why? Why would I do that?”
BRANDY: [gasps] Oh, my!
CHERYL: And I’m like, “Well…” And so, I’m kind of a slow thinker a lot of the time. So, what I failed to realize was he has transcripts so that he can edit his interviews down and edit his content down. And I was like, but literally, I don’t understand why you would have transcripts and not post them. So, now, three years later, I understand why. But he said, “No, I don’t post transcripts.” And I’m like, “Well, what about, for example, Deaf people?” And he’s like, “I don’t think Deaf people would be interested in my show.
CHERYL: And then turned his body away from me to end the conversation. We were at a group dinner thing. And that inspired me to, in tears, come home and do a whole episode about transcripts. And I interviewed all these people. And a lot of people are like, “We do transcripts for deaf people!” And I think stop virtue signaling and patting yourself on the back. Deaf people are not the only people who use transcripts.
CHERYL: And if you do that kind of virtue signaling where you name this one group because they’re a group that everybody’s familiar with, you’re actually showing that you’re not really, you’re focused on yourself. You’re not focused on equitable access. Just say you have transcripts. “We have tran—” Anybody who wants to use them can and should be able to. They’re not transcripts just for Deaf people. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s fine to pick a group and use as an example. You know, I said to this guy, “What about Deaf people?” But there are so many other people, and in this interview, or in this episode I did on transcripts, I interviewed all sorts of people who don’t identify as Deaf but can’t partake of content that’s not transcribed.
CHERYL: And, yeah, it was a fun episode to do. It was an angering episode, but it was fun.
BRANDY: Well, I think this gets back to another point that I have about accessibility. And ‘m gonna sort of take a long way around to get to what I’m trying to say, which is when we talk about patients, for instance, if you say patients, doctor. Well, this is Medical Humanities. And so, often you’ll have people describe the experience of a patient versus the experience of a doctor. We’ve largely moved away from that as much as we can, anyway, at Medical Humanities, not because we wanna make that invisible, but because “patient” is a category that is one tiny fraction of your life. You might be a patient, but you’re also a violinist, a gourmet chef. You’re a whole human being. And so, we’ve really moved more towards looking at the public, right? So, how do we reach the public? And in a way, I feel like accessibility is similar. If you’re just looking at accessibility, as in, I am correcting this missing thing, i.e., I am providing transcripts for the Deaf, like you said, the ones who signal it, then you’re not really, the focus is on the missing thing. It’s sort of a taking the negative approach instead of the positive approach. Sort of like looking at someone as a patient as opposed to an entire human being that may also be a patient. So, I wonder—I may be making this needlessly complex—but I feel that accessibility is something to focus on in and of itself to make things accessible. Because we’re all part of this community that has varying needs, as opposed to this kind of narrowing down. Is that kind of what you’re saying there too?
CHERYL: I didn’t understand the question. I understood everything leading up to the question.
BRANDY: [laughs] Sorry. And this concept of the opening out of access, that you should provide these things because you should provide them, because they’re a necessary part. You know, the podcast isn’t done until there’s a transcript. This concept that the accessibility factor is not about you picking a community and saying, “Well, we’re letting them in.” But it’s actually this all of our communication, all of our community, all of our work in podcast, audio, and video, too, is supposed to be accessible because it just should be. Not because we’re trying to fix a specific problem, but because blanket-wide, accessibility is important.
CHERYL: Yes. I need to pause because my screen saver came on, and it’s hurting my eyes.
CHERYL: [typing] So, I just need to remember my password so I can unlock my computer.
BRANDY: Oh, no!
CHERYL: What that reminded me of is that there is, in a lot of these accessibility conversations—and I was even in one recently—there still, here’s one piece that’s missing is, in larger conversations, especially with people outside disability community and disability arts, there’s still an assumption that I’m coming across that we should make stuff accessible to Deaf and disabled audiences. And they leave out the whole thing about disabled creators.
CHERYL: And so, here I am talking to you right now. And once my screen went to sleep and the screen saver, it came on, I couldn’t really even speak to you because I don’t like that screen saver. I don’t know how to change it. I suppose I could look it up. But I have to do different things to help me concentrate because of my disability. And this thing became a distraction to where I couldn’t even participate in my own interview. And so, when we’re making stuff accessible, it’s also accessible for Deaf and disabled creators who need to always be…. Disabled people need to be considered leaders. And one of the things that I love about what you said, where we’re not gonna talk about patients and doctors as these two separate groups, another beautiful thing about that is that you do have Deaf and disabled doctors and providers of different kinds.
CHERYL: And so, it doesn’t help to divide. There are doctors who are patients!
CHERYL: So, I do always wanna— Some of the choices that I make in my sound design are for me. And I hope that other people who have auditory processing struggles or concentration struggles or hearing sensitivity, I think about them too, of course. But I’m not gonna put something in that I can’t tolerate, and that helps me think about other people. OK, you know what? These lights are flashing too bright. I can’t have that. If I, editing this video, can’t tolerate to look at that, there are other people who not only can’t tolerate it, but even worse than can’t tolerate it.
CHERYL: And so, I think there is also a disabled aesthetic that can open up that, by its nature, is more accessible because it’s accommodating. So, you’re never gonna hear a podcast of mine with people talking and music with a driving percussion under it. It’s just never gonna happen on my show because I can’t tolerate that!
BRANDY: [laughing] Right.
CHERYL: And so, part of my aesthetic ends up just being an accessibility aesthetic or a disabled esthetic.
CHERYL: And I no longer can remember if I’m actually answering the question that you asked!
BRANDY: No, you are, you are. Or you’re leading somewhere more beautiful. It doesn’t matter.
BRANDY: [laughs] I wanna grasp onto something you said here, which I think is very important, which is the creative. You keep saying “creators, creative.”
BRANDY: And that’s a positive word. And I think what I was trying to get at, possibly not well, is that we have a tendency to look at accessibility as we look at disability, as like this will fix that. Hearing aid for this person. Eyeglasses for that, you know.
BRANDY: As opposed to the creative aspects that come along with what these kinds of things can mean. So, there’s a positive way that says, how can I make accessibility beautiful and glorious and amazing? Instead of looking at the negative, how can I fill this gap so I don’t get into trouble?
CHERYL: I mean, 100%. Absolutely. I think my favorite parts of— Well, I love captioning and audio description. Captioning is especially great because I love tedious, repetitive stuff. And you might have to watch the same film three, five, eight times to make sure the captions are as close to perfect as you can possibly make them. I love that repetitive tediousness of it. And…but I also love, I love…. I spend a lot of time on thesaurus.com. And I’ll even, it’s not so much dancing, but sometimes I’ll hear something in a film, and I can’t think of the adjective to describe it. So, I’ll try to put the sound in my body and feel it and move my body in a way that will eventually somehow, magically elicit an adjective that I want or at least get me closer on thesaurus.com to what I want.
CHERYL: And so, I’m having this kind of blissed out, creative experience of like unleashing words through spontaneous, improvised movement. But I also have the joy of knowing that I didn’t say “slow music, slow music, slow music, slow music.”
CHERYL: Like the budget captioners, if they even describe the music at all. It’s just like, will you stop saying it’s slow? So, if I hear slow music in a film, it sounds slow to me. I’m not gonna put “slow.” I’m gonna think about what emotion is the director evoking? Why did the director pick this particular kind of music? What does this music make me feel? Well, it’s making me feel like thinking. OK, so maybe it’s pensive music. Maybe it’s thoughtful music. Why is it slow? You know what? This time, it’s that— Sometimes, directors might use the same piece of music several times throughout the film. I mean, there’s very good reasons to do that.
CHERYL: Well, I might hear the same song twice. And one time it makes me think, and another time it makes me sad. It’s the same music, but this scene feels sad. So, I might describe the music as…. I’m sure there’s a better word than “sad,” but I don’t have to be literal about this song is slow.
CHERYL: What is the mood? And what do I experience from the director? And you know what? Sometimes when I don’t know what’s going on, I just email the director. What is this music? How do you describe this music? I’m in contact with directors all the time and podcasters. You know, “I didn’t understand this word. What did your guest say here? What did you say here?”.
BRANDY: Mmhmm, mmhmm.
CHERYL: The budget access stuff they just put “inaudible.”
BRANDY: Right. So, what we’re saying here is that—and we’ll be wrapping up in just a few minutes—but I feel like one of the things that you’re really coming across clearly to me is that there is a kinesthetic kind of beauty involved in creative arts that is true no matter who’s creating. And I think we have a tendency to think creativity somehow goes over here and not in the realm of captions, right? But in fact, it is. This is all creative content. You wouldn’t describe writing a novel as, “Slow music, slow music.” Nobody does that. So, you know! So, I feel that what’s really wonderful about this conversation, and I hope our listeners have enjoyed it as well, is that issues of accessibility aren’t supposed to be punitive measures because you failed somewhere. They are beautiful, creative, conversant communication moments among and between different communities. And I’m so glad that you could share that with us today, Cheryl.
CHERYL: Well, I’m so glad you described it that way, because I’ve never described it as beautifully and eloquently as you did. And I’m so glad that’s recorded.
CHERYL: Because I hope to be able to just take that right out of the transcript and share it with people.
CHERYL: Attributed to you, of course! But really, to describe what this is. And I think it still, to me, goes back to what you said about not separating out patients and doctors and not separating out access is over here, and art is over there. And in my film, my film, Who Am I To Stop It is about isolation, art, and transformation after traumatic brain injury. And I have people who say, like, “Oh. Oh, interesting film about recovery.” I’m like, at what point did you ever hear the word “recovery” or hear anyone talk about it or see it in the captions or read it in the transcript or see anything that showed that? You didn’t. This is, the art that happens, in that film gives us access into their hearts and their minds. And sometimes it’s a song of worship. Sometimes it’s protest about the injustice of life. Sometimes it’s about internalized ableism. But to me, it all wraps up, all of these things are wrapped up. And to separate anything out into these discrete parts, like we’re not doing a scientific experiment here. We’re not doing a randomized controlled trial.
BRANDY: [chuckling] Right!
CHERYL: We are talking about, like you say, communication.
BRANDY: Human beings, yeah.
CHERYL: Human beings communicating and using arts and media to do so. And to try to separate people out, even into creator versus audience, doesn’t really serve. And I think this more integrated kind of flowy way is a much more satisfying and fun way to do it.
BRANDY: Yes. Thank you so much, Cheryl. This is wonderful. Again to our listeners, there will be a transcript. All of our podcasts are also promoted on the blog. And we’ll have some links there that go out to some of the podcasts and other materials that Cheryl Green has talked about today. So, again, thank you for listening. And join us again at the Medical Humanities podcast.