Documentaries, Accessibility, and Open Culture

Accepted Session
Long Form
Scheduled: Wednesday, June 22, 2016 from 5:45 – 7:30pm in A108


I've been making a documentary film about accessibility for almost a year now. What I've realized is that film is fundamentally hard to access. Let's talk about what that means for culture, creators, and consumers.


TL;DR: i believe that accessibility is a human right. I used to be a full-time writer; now I split my time between writing and documentary filmmaking. As a writer, it was easy to believe that my work was accessible; it’s relatively easy to make plain text accessible to people who may not be able to see, hear, touch, etc. But as a filmmaker, I’ve been confronted with a serious issue: How do I make documentary films accessible to people who can’t see them, or hear them, or have other issues of access? This issue became especially acute when I was hired to make a film about accessibility…and I realized that making a film accessible may be the greatest challenge I have faced as a creator.

This talk explores my journey in making this film, the people who have influenced me along the way (primarily blind folks and accessibility advocates), teaching me how to understand this stuff, and helping me figure out how to bring the message of accessibility to everyone who creates media.

Let’s go back to the beginning.

I started as a freelance writer in the 1990s, and became serious about it 10 years ago (2006). Since then, I’ve written a daily blog for mental_floss, and wrote for a bunch of magazines, radio shows, and newspapers (This American Life, The Atlantic, The Magazine, The Week, The Portland Mercury, Portland Business Magazine, The Portland Mercury, you name it). For the first half-decade there I mixed a day job in tech with a night job in nonfiction writing. In the past three-ish years, I’ve been a full-time freelance writer. (Hey, I even wrote a book about it! And I’ve contributed essays and stories to a bunch of other books in the meantime.)

Since I was a teen, I’ve wanted to make documentary films. I’ve worked on a bunch of documentaries (for example, I wrote “Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters” and was story consultant for “The Lost Arcade”), but I didn’t strike out to make my own films until recently…mainly because I was afraid to take the leap. Documentary filmmaking is not exactly a lucrative occupation. But despite this, it’s something I’m drawn to, so I went ahead and started working on documentary on my own dime as an indie. I was a little surprised when people started hiring me to make short docs for them.

In 2015, I was offered a commission: A local software company wanted to talk up their experience making their meeting software accessible. I took the gig, and began interviewing people who worked professionally in the accessibility world. It was immediately apparent that the story here was not “small Portland company makes cool accessible software”; the issue was more like “accessible is a fundamental right of humans.” This changed everything for me, and called into question how I would even go about making the film. What was my responsibility to my subjects? How could I tell their stories and communicate their values appropriately? What does it mean to make a “film” on the internet in 2015-2016 in a way that is truly “accessible?” (Yes, this means subtitles, descriptive audio, many video formats, transcripts, and a thousand other things…but that’s a bunch of technical detail. What does it MEAN to make a FILM that is genuinely ACCESSIBLE to people who, for instance, cannot see it? Several of my primary interviewees are blind!) To their credit, the client immediately recognized these challenges and suggested that I double the budget for the film, remove the client from it entirely (!), and focus primarily on evangelizing the notion of accessibility as a thing for people who make things. (Things being software, cultural artifacts, whatever.)

In this talk, I’ll discuss my journey in making this film, showing a work-in-progress (the final film likely won’t be ready until September or so), and co-present with Cory Klatik, the primary subject of the film. As a UX and social media expert, who happens to be blind, Klatik is the person we meet first in this film, and it’s his experience with technology that allow the audience to connect with the core problems—and opportunities—of accessibility.

Ideally, the talk contains this business:

1 – Discussion of how I started, and after interviewing something like seven experts, realized that I was doing the film entirely wrong. (I might show some clips of this early work that clued me in.)

2 – The experience of showing a rough cut of the wrong film to hundreds of disability advocates/experts at Accessing Higher Ground in Nov 2015. (And hearing their constructive feedback. This amounted to, “Hey, you might want to focus more on showing people with disabilities, rather than people TALKING ABOUT people with disabilities, in your film.”)

3 – Re-shooting the whole thing to focus on a specific individual’s story, rather than a bunch of talking-head experts.

4 – Dealing with issues of access related to the screenings themselves, plus the trailer. (It is genuinely challenging to make video accessible online; there is really no single “best” way to do it, even today, so we are faced with a bunch of hacks and workarounds. Some of this is technology, some of this is designing the film itself.)

5 – How my filmmaking practice has changed as a result of encountering users with accessibility needs.

6 – What this means for open culture broadly. In other words, if we intend to make “films” to be presented online, even if they are free and broadly accessible, how specifically can we do that? This is not just a technology problem; it’s also an issue of intentionality in creating the work and designing it to work with different modalities of consumption. As a former writer, this seems to boil down to wrestling with the distinction between “here’s a pile of words” (as in, articles I used to write as the bulk of my living) and “here’s a documentary film” (the things I am now making a bunch of, which also include lots of words…but also include moving pictures, sound, music, and a kind of immersion that simply doesn’t exist in the word-piles I typically write).

7 – The personal transition I’ve gone through as a person who primarily sells words (a relatively accessible thing) to being a person who splits his income 50/50 between words and moving pictures. The crux: What is my responsibility as a creator to make my work accessible to everybody? By extension: What does that mean for other creators, and how can we consider these kinds of usability cases when creating cultural content?


accessibility, a11y, film, documentary, culture, disability

Speaking experience

I've headlined for Hand-Eye Supply twice, spoken at UC Davis about my book ("The Blogger Abides," about freelance writing), and performed for audiences across the south (okay, technically just Florida and West Virginia). I've performed on This American Life, been a guest on The Internet History Podcast, plus The New Disruptors, How to Do Everything, and Katie Lane's (currently unpublished) podcast about freelance business stuff. I presented a very early version of this talk at Accessing Higher Ground in Nov 2015, and have spoken at a variety of conferences on topics related to mobile technology and writing.

Some relevant articles, videos, etc. are here:

A semi-recent talk (with super crappy sound mix for live stream) starts around 1:53 here:,Core77


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