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'There is progress, but much more is needed' for the visually impaired to experience events like the Super Bowl

a hand holds a remote that's pointed at a tv in the background that has a blurry screen
Glenn Carstens Peters

There was at least one demographic missing when companies paid millions to advertise on Super Bowl Sunday. The blind or partially sighted had no audio description of the commercials.

“Without description, blind people are watching TV and saying 'What? What’s happening?” tech writer and former Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Deborah Kendrick told WVXU.

One Super Bowl ad in 2021 did describe the scene.

Tide Super Bowl ad - audio description

Shortly after the Tide ad ran, the digital marketing website The Drum wondered if more audio description ads were on the horizon.

“While brands from P&G to Microsoft and eBay to Amazon have been working to make their ads more accessible, their efforts are just a drop in the ocean," it reports.

“There is progress, but much more is needed,” says Sonali Rai, broadcaster relationship and AD technology manager at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).

P&G’s Director of Advertising Production Paul Chick told The Drum before last year’s Super Bowl, “While most of our day-to-day TV commercials are being audio described, we hadn’t yet had the opportunity to DVS a spot for a large-scale event,”

Kendrick might have used YouDescribe to experience Super Bowl ads. It’s a service where volunteers describe things. But Kendrick says it won’t be timely and because the volunteers aren’t professionals, it may be good and it may not be.

How could people with no or limited sight experience the actual game?

The Audio Description Project said Aira provided audio description for the pre-game and half-time, as well as the Puppy Bowl. It did not describe the game. Aira is live, on-demand visual interpreting.

Kendrick texted her visually impaired friends and found they were all going to listen to the radio during the game.

Juandez “Dez” Scruggs, adaptive sports coordinator for Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, has limited sight. He plans to sit a couple inches away from his 70” TV and watch. In the future he would like increased use of VR to experience sports.

“I think the Metaverse and the whole virtual reality thing is going to change the game for visually impaired people," he says. "I think that could give us a different outlook on it because that could give us a different way to watch the game.”

For fans who are visually impaired in a stadium, Ireland is leading the way. During soccer games, they wear an ear piece in one ear, hearing the crowd in the other ear. An audio describer explains what they are not seeing, like when some flares went off.

RTÉ Nationwide: NCBI/Bohs audio description service

Assistive technology specialist Jule Ann Lieberman hopes to have more of these types of things in the U.S.

“I’m thinking in the future there’s going to be more of that movement in attendance, when you are attending a sporting event to have that opportunity to do so,” she says.

Both Liberman and Kendrick — who admittedly are not sports fans — say they were cheering on the Bengals.

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.