CaptionMax has a dedicated Consumer Advisory Board with experts in all kinds of accessibility. As guest bloggers, we ask our board members to share their accessibility stories. Our next CAB guest blogger is Josh Miele, Ph.D. Dr. Miele is a Research Scientist with the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute where he conducts research in the areas of audiotactile graphics and auditory displays. He also serves on the Board of Directors for the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. You can find out more about Dr. Miele on his LinkedIn profile, by reading his editorial comments on accessible technology at his blog, or by following his more broadly focused twitter feed @BerkeleyBlink.
As a hearing, speaking blind person, so much of the information in my world comes to me through the voices of others. There are voices in my clock and calculator, my computers and cell phone. I rely on the recorded voices that announce the arrival of buses and trains, and I am intimately familiar with the voices that narrate my books and movies. These voices may not be James Earl Jones or Patrick Stewart. They may have none of the sauce and swagger of Mae West or Jack Nicholson or even the temporary familiarity of the latest American Idol celebrity. The voices I’m talking about come without faces or bodies, without benefit of biography or pride of personality. These are the virtually anonymous working voices, the voices that provide access to information, the voices of infrastructure that I rely on every day of my blind life and usually take for granted.
An excellent example is the Time Lady. In the early ‘70s, the telephone had only one voice. She told us the time, encouraged us to “call the operator for assistance,” and warned us to hang up before she blasted our brains out with that ear-splitting pulsation of death that screamed, “HANG UP THE PHONE!” She told us when our circuits were busy, when our friends had moved, and even sometimes what number to dial to reach them in their new homes. She was even the first voice of voice mail, and her mellow, middle-American drone became, for me and millions of other young Americans, the voice of the telephone.
Recently I learned that she did have a name. Jane Barbe was responsible for virtually all of the telephone-related recordings in the United States before 1980. A little poking on the Internet reveals that the so-called Time Lady is now something of a cult figure. It seems that she was human, had an acting and singing career, a husband, children, and grandchildren. It turns out that she was from Georgia and that the American Standard accent she modeled so perfectly was an act, a vocal persona adopted to assure America that the telephone network was in the hands of helpful, competent, Midwestern professionals. But she wasn’t Jane Barbe to most of us – she was simply the voice of the phone, the voice we would know anywhere, telling us to please hang up and try our call again.
Other voices blind people know intimately, but about which we know practically nothing, are the narrators of talking books. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) provides thousands of new talking books each year. These books are recorded by dozens of professional readers whose names we have come to know well but whose personalities are only shadows behind the books they have recorded. Of course, we can infer that Bob Askey probably likes westerns, that Martha Harmon Pardee may enjoy romances, and that Erik Sandvold is likely to be a sucker for pithy science fiction, but we never have a chance to discuss the books with them. Their recorded voices are tireless, reading a 20-hour book in a single sitting if we demand it of them. Without complaint, the voices are there in the middle of a sleepless night, on crowded buses, in sickness and in health. They read to us as we grow and mature, first reading us titles like Winnie-the-Pooh and Frog and Toad, moving on to All Creatures Great and Small, then Star Wars and Ender’s Game, and ultimately mature books like What to Expect… and Fatherhood.
These hardworking voices are the conductors of our trains, the readers of our books, and the describers of our movies. Our relationship to them is well-defined with an elegant simplicity, uncomplicated by the normal politics of human interaction: they speak, and we listen. But the reality is not so simple. Easy though it is to forget, there are people and lives behind the voices – people who take pride in their ability to melt behind the more important message and simply be the voice of the visuals, the book, the train, or the time.
Now the time has come for me to talk back. I recently read of the death of Terry Hayes Sales, a talking-book voice who spent hundreds of hours entertaining me as a child. As so often happens, I didn’t properly appreciate her until I heard the news of her death. Of course, voices are constantly going silent: Jane Barbe died in 2003, Don LaFontaine – the voice of countless movie trailers – died more recently, and the list will continue to go on and on.
So this is a shout-out to the people behind the voices of the past, present, and future: I break my silent part in our relationship to tell you that your words are heard and appreciated. The films you describe, the books you read, the announcements you make, and the samples you record are keys that help open accessible avenues in education, employment, and entertainment for me and thousands of other blind people. Thank you for describing the Backyardigans and for reading to me as I drift off to sleep. Thank you for announcing my bus stop and for identifying the color of my shirts. Thank you for your dedication, your commitment, and your willingness to let the information take priority over your individuality. It is because of you and your voice that we know that this recorded edition contains the entire text of the print edition, that the next stop is Sacramento and Fillmore, and that if we need help, we can hang up and then dial the operator.