Cheryl Green, Access Artist
Disability Podcast Survey: http://bit.ly/podaccess
Disability Justice Transcript: September 2022
[ominous droning music, then ethereal voices singing for introduction, then music fades out]
JOHN: Good morning. This is Disability Justice, an everyday pursuit in survival. Your host, John Griffiths.
DENA: And Dena Wilder. [sings ala Sade’s Smooth Operator] Board operator!
CHERYL: Teamwork makes the dream work.
JOHN: In the studio today, with me is Cheryl Green.
CHERYL: Hi, my name is Cheryl. I’m a white Ashkenazi Jewish woman with olive skin and dark curly hair and black glasses. And I have a giant microphone in front of my laptop that looks like it’s about to hit me in the face.
JOHN: I’m John Griffiths. I go by gender it. Race is non-human. I wear corrective lenses. My hair is kind of, or at least in the beard, it’s kind of pepperish with some red stripes going right down the front. And the hair that’s still remaining on my head is black. And I got a few wrinkles ‘cause I’m getting there. Cheryl, I actually don’t know your title.
CHERYL: Yeah, totally fine. I usually identify myself as an Access Artist.
JOHN: What is an Access Artist?
CHERYL: An Access Artist is a term that my very good friends and colleagues, Grant Miller and Jonathan Paradox Lee, came up with, and they get community input to write that definition. And I think it’s growing and changing, but it does refer to accessibility, but not for compliance. Accessibility from the community’s perspective, a disability aesthetic, accessibility that’s beautiful and creative and immersive. So, that’s a term that I really like to use.
Getting Started in Access Art
JOHN: And if you wouldn’t mind telling us a little bit about yourself, how you got started in this business.
CHERYL: Sure. Before I do that, I would like to say I am wearing a shirt that says, “Ableism is trash” right on the front. So, I just wanted to lead with that as my introduction [laughing] is my shirt.
JOHN: Ooh. Oh, that’s colorful.
CHERYL: Yeah! So, that’s my introduction. My name is Cheryl Green, and ableism is trash. So, how I came into this, my primary work is I’m a captioner, transcriptionist, audio describer, and I train and do presentations in those things. I also am a podcaster. I’m a former KBOO radio host, volunteer, former. It was years ago. And I have made a handful of documentary films. I don’t do the film stuff so much.
And how did I come into this? I, when I was studying theater in this program called—[laughs] what was it—Performance as Public Practice. I’m laughing ‘cause I just can’t remember what it was called. It was years ago. And in that program, I got an internship with VSA Arts of Texas. So, that’s the state disability arts organization. I identified as non-disabled back then, but I got to learn about disability arts and disability culture. And I worked backstage and interning on Terri Galloway’s Actual Lives and got to see and hear all these amazing stories from people who were like anti-inspiration, and just a wide range of identities, a wide range of telling stories. I feel really lucky and privileged to have gotten introduced to that side of disability community before I acquired my own disabilities, because then, when I did acquire my own invisible disabilities, I didn’t have to have a crisis of faith or of humanity. Oh yes, disabled people are great people and culture makers and contributors and just as wide a range of types of people as any other group you might come up with. And I didn’t have to feel like I had lost my identity because I had met disabled people who had identities! But I think if you don’t have that exposure, non-disabled people can become very frightened if they acquire a disability.
So, how I came to this work was when I acquired my disabilities, I had to leave the career track that I was on, and I got really engaged with Impetus Arts, which was Curtis Walker’s performance group in Portland. I did No One Wants To See The Wires, a storytelling and performance project with them. And I did a lot of dancing with the late Kathy Coleman of Disability Art and Culture Project and Eric Ferguson and Alexis Jewel and Art Honeyman. So, I just met all these rad disabled activists and artists. And yeah, I acquired my own disabilities and was embraced in the disability arts scene because I had already been part of that group as a non-disabled person. And I just quit the career track I was on, and I got into captioning and storytelling first, and then I got excited by film and took some documentary filmmaking classes, made some films, and just kept my education going. When I realized that captions were a great form of access, but they only served a small number of people, I then went, I learned about audio description and went and studied that and became an audio describer. And yeah, just constantly growing in those areas.
Captions and Audio Description
JOHN: When you say audio describer and caption only serves a small audience, what does that actually mean? So, I mean, can you explain what it means to do audio describing beyond just closed caption?
CHERYL: I really appreciate that question a lot. Yeah. So, the captions are available only visually. Like, when you go to a theater or, you know, a community screening, if you don’t have access to seeing the screen—maybe you’re blind, maybe you’re non-visual, maybe you’re facing the other direction, whatever the reason—if you don’t have access to the visuals on the screen, you won’t even know the captions are there. You won’t be able to read them. Some people maybe have low vision, and they can see some of it, but it goes by too quick, or it’s not big enough and they can’t read it all. And they’re just not given access to this information. So, audio description is a way to talk and describe some of the things that are happening on the screen. You don’t always have to read out the captions because let’s say the audience member using audio description can hear everything. Then you don’t have to read what’s in the captions unless it’s like a translation to a different language, you might need to read subtitles out.
So, with audio description, there’s a lot of ways to define it, but I like to be really creative with it. It’s not that you’re describing every single thing on screen. And especially if people are talking, you can’t describe while the characters are talking. So, you try to give people a way in, what, you know, what are some of the visuals on screen? What is some of the action taking place that’s not obvious just from listening to the film? And I try to get interesting and creative and textural. Like, you don’t have to constantly say what everything looks like. You could make reference to, you know, maybe instead of saying that this shirt I’m wearing is gray, maybe I reference that it’s soft. It’s a soft cotton shirt. Because if you’re not referencing the world just by visuals, maybe some people don’t care that it’s gray. Maybe some people do. But soft is a different sensory experience that you can relate to, whether you could see the shirt or not. Like, oh, yes, I can think about a soft shirt. So, I try to be interesting and creative with it.
JOHN: How in the world do you learn to think that way?
CHERYL: Ooh! [laughs] I’m still learning! So, I listen to audio description. I subscribe to, one of my favorite podcasts is Reid My Mind Radio with Thomas Reid, R e i d. He is an audio describer, and he’s a blind person who uses audio description. I listen to his podcast. I listen to him talk to other blind people about what makes great audio description and what makes bad audio description. I took 50 hours of professional training. I watch movies with description on to hear how people are doing it. I read science journalism. And my partner is a former science journalist, and the way that they write, it’s the most amazing, short, sweet, tight, poetic way of writing I’ve ever come across. And so, I consume a lot of science journalism because it shows me how to make those short, punchy, informative, creative sentences. I can’t talk that way, but [chuckles] I’m working on learning to write that way.
JOHN: So, there really isn’t like any school or education in this or anything like that? Or are you saying, yes, there is. It’s just you’re doing it in a, you’re learning in a different way?
CHERYL: Oh, I love that. It’s both. So, I did do 50 hours of professional training that I, you know, paid tuition for this training. And there are several places to get trained in the U.S. and other parts of the world. But there’s no certification.
CHERYL: You can’t become a certified audio describer. We don’t have that yet. I do think, like you said, John, it’s wonderful if people learn it in different ways. Like, talk to your blind friends! Ask them what makes good audio description. I’m in a collective called Social Audio Description Collective. I think half the collective members are blind people who write, narrate, edit the audio. We all collaborate in different ways on the different pieces that we write and record, and that’s a great way to learn what makes good writing is the blind people on the team saying, “What is that? That’s no good. You need to change that.” Or, “Can we alter it in this way? This part doesn’t make sense. What are you referring to?” So, it’s constant dialogue. That’s how I learn it.
JOHN: And did you, I’m assuming, did you have to look for this collective, or did you wind up in this collective somehow? I mean, did you fall in with these people? I mean, how did you stumble across this collective? I mean, I’m pretty certain some of my audience would be interested in, you know, their own, finding their own collective or maybe being a part of yours or something like that.
CHERYL: This collective I found in a Facebook group, like a professional Facebook group for audio describers and audience members who, or people who use audio description. And this group, when they started, the first thing they did, they call it vigilante trailer description. So, they take Hollywood films or whatever films people request, and they audio describe the trailers because the big production companies in Hollywood, a lot of them are audio describing a lot of their films, but they’re not describing their trailers! Like, how are you supposed to know if you’re gonna be interested in this film if the trailer wasn’t made in a way that you can actually get much from it? So, they take requests, and they started doing these vigilante trailers. And that’s how I first learned about them. But then two of the founding collective members were interviewed on Reid My Mind Radio with Thomas Reid. So, I learned more about them and fell in love and tried several times to join, but they weren’t taking applications. And then at some point, they opened up their applications, and one of them contacted me and said, “Hey, thanks for audio describing your stuff and not setting it to private.” Because some people online will make the audio described versions hidden and hard to find, and mine are right up out there with my non-described stuff. I always post two versions because not everybody wants the audio description, so you should be able to pick which one you do want. And I was really lucky that they let me in.
JOHN: So, you said two?! Are you constantly writing up two for every show you do?
CHERYL: Well, for my own films, which I don’t make many films anymore, but I post. On YouTube and Vimeo, if I’m gonna post my own filmmaking, I post two copies of every film. One copy has audio description on. You can’t turn it off. It’s just there. The other copy has no audio description. And they both have captions. Each person can choose how they wanna experience the film with or without audio description. So, that’s what I do for my own work.
JOHN: Hmm. Wow!
Current Project: POD Access
JOHN: What is your current project?
CHERYL: Alice Wong is one of my favorite humans/cat people on the planet, and she runs the Disability Visibility Project. She got funding to start a disabled, a hub for disabled podcasters, and Thomas Reid and I were selected to create this hub in any way that we wanted to. And so, we have been meeting weekly, sometimes three times a week, for close to a year maybe? And we are developing a hub. We’re developing a space for Deaf and disabled podcasters to find each other and find audiences. And we’re gonna have a learning and resource hub. So, John, you and I were talking briefly before we started recording about editing software, and what do you do when you record video on Zoom? How do you get that onto the radio? We want to gather or create accessible resources so that nobody is stuck at home wondering what to do next. You wanna make radio, you wanna make podcasts, you should be able to do so.
So, the first thing we’re doing right now, we have a survey that we’ve put out that we want all podcasters with any kind of disability or Deaf podcasters to fill out. We want audience members to fill out, whoever you are. And the survey is at https://bit.ly/PODAccess. And that last part is P O D A c c e s s: POD Access. That’s our temporary name. And we have a ton of people who’ve filled it out so far. We’re getting such great information about what is the content out there, who’s making what, and what are the obstacles people are running into: equipment, funding, writer’s block, don’t have enough team. What are people’s interests? Because there’s a lot of neat podcasts on disability or accessibility and a lot of great people with disabilities and Deaf people making podcasts, but the mainstream audience still thinks it’s like this niche thing. “Well, why should I listen to that show?” [chuckles] That’s about disability. Whatever. I don’t care about that.” Why wouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t you care? It’s great. There’s great content. And we wanna help people learn how to make their podcast more accessible to a larger audience. So, anyway, we’re in the beginning phases. We need people to fill out the survey, and that’s the big thing that we’re working on right now.
Once our website is built—it’s not built yet—once it’s built, I think it’s gonna be a lot easier to share ‘cause we will have a database of all the disability-related podcasts or disabled podcasters. What is your show? Are you taking guests? What access do you offer? Do you wanna be a guest on someone else’s show? Like, it’s all gonna be in one place, and I think it’ll be very shareable. And I think the word will get out more. You know, right now, survey, a lot of people don’t wanna fill out a survey. It’s not that attractive. But when we say, “Come check out this database. Find great shows.”
And I do wanna say, you know, people whose shows are not fully accessible, that’s okay. We want you in the database, and we can work as a community to figure out how to make stuff more accessible. What we’re not interested in is disability visitors. So, like a non-disabled person who did a show once about curb cuts: whatever, get outta here. [laughs] You’ve got your own space! This is not your space. We want that person to fill out the survey. We want that person to, you know, find cool people on our website. But our database is not going to be listing every non-disabled show that dipped its toe into one disability element one time. We just don’t need that. So, that’s not gonna be the feature.
CHERYL: Disability touches every single kind of person, every topic, every political issue, every beautiful thing. It’s everywhere.
CHERYL: My blog, I audio record my blog. So, it’s typed out, and if you use a screen reader, you can listen to my blog. But I have a lot of dyslexic blog subscribers, and one in particular, a blog subscriber who really struggles to read since his brain injury, and he doesn’t have screen reading technology. And a lot of dyslexic people don’t, maybe don’t necessarily have it. So, it’s audio recorded, so you don’t have to fuss with it. You don’t wanna read this or you can’t read it? Great. You can listen. I’ve narrated it. I’ve read it aloud. So, that’s one piece that I offer there. And then with the podcast, it is, of course, starts from audio, but I transcribe it. And not just transcript.
Like, I see a lot of transcripts out there on some of the bigger shows where they use terms like “sound bite” in the transcript, and they don’t tell you what the sound bite is of. It’s just like, you know, “sound bite of a riot.” Well, but what sounds?! What sounds actually happened? Or “sound bite of,” and they’ll just say the name of a program. And they don’t transcribe it! And my question is, why on earth are you providing access if you’re not gonna provide good access? I understand if you don’t have the budget and you’re just on a shoestring, and you’re out there trying to provide, you know, a few small pieces of access that you can. Great. Every little bit that you do is wonderful. But some of these bigger organizations and channels have stuff that is quote-unquote “compliant” but is boring. It’s unclear. It’s not written beautifully. It’s not descriptive.
Like, OK, music. If you go back to my earliest films, which please don’t, I have captions that are just like it says “music,” or it just has music notes. ‘Cause I didn’t know any better when I started, and that’s what I was seeing around me. Well, if you are relying on the captions, and it just says music notes. What? Who cares? Like, the film director chose that music that they put there or the podcast creator, you choose the music that you choose for a reason. You want it to sound a way. You want it to bring a certain emotion. You want the speed, the instrumentation, you’re very deliberate. And yet, when it comes to the transcripts, whatever, it’s just music. Blah. And I’m sick and tired of boring accessibility that is only based on compliance. And so, in my transcripts and captions, I try to bring an emotion to the captions and the transcript.
JOHN: So, you know, up to this point, I think I was having some real confusion over exactly what you were doing. And listening to the description you’re just giving me right now, you’re telling me you take certain words in there that might be just really mundane, boring, or just broad description, but not focused description. And what you do is you take these words, and you turn them into a more focused description.
JOHN: I got that correct?
CHERYL: You did. Yeah, it’s absolutely correct. That is the point. It needs to be focused. Specifically what is happening right now? But I also try to make it fun and interesting. And, you know, I hear this music, but this music brings a feeling to me. I’m gonna put that feeling in the caption. Yeah, I’m gonna put that feeling in there. Because if you’re gonna put so much effort into making beautiful art, why wouldn’t you put so much effort into making beautiful access? Like, who is this for?
When you make boring accessibility that is only focused on compliance, you are putting yourself at the center. “Look at me” pat, pat, pat on the back. “I did a good job. I provided a thing.” But if you really want the people using the access to be at the center of the experience, you will give them something interesting and beautiful and as creative as the piece of art that you made. They’re never gonna be identical. But I think that people should try more to make them interesting and creative and fun and useful.
JOHN: So, what are your long-term goals here?
CHERYL: Ugh! I can’t tell time, and I can’t read calendars very well, so I don’t even know what a long-term goal is. I almost said, “lawn term.” I’d like to sit in the lawn. That’s one of my goals. But I just found out I’m allergic to grass. And the COVID booster has now made me allergic to like, everything, so I can’t sit in the lawn either.
CHERYL: OK. That was my digression. Long-term goals. I’m really excited about the collaboration in the Social Audio Description Collective, and I want that collaboration to grow and for us to get more work. I do like working solo on my own, and I do always pay a blind or low-vision consultant to review my scripts before I record them. But in the collective, we all work together, and it’s a very diverse group of people and very enriching. So, I want that work to grow.
I’m really excited about the project with Thomas, the POD Access Project, to take off and really build community and that we can offer really useful and usable and accessible information and opportunities to people. I’m super excited about that growing. But that’s on a grant, and so it’s kind of short-term. You know, that money will run out, and if we haven’t found a way to get more money, that one will be short-term. I don’t know what my long-term goals are, John! [laughs] I’d like to get a guinea pig! That’s one.
JOHN: [high-pitched and happy lilting] Aw!!!
CHERYL: Exactly! ‘Cause it’ll make me make that sound! [laughs]
JOHN: So, you know, I’m really kind of curious, and I’m just kind of like wondering how, you know, how in the world did you become so aware of, I’m just kinda curious, how in the world did y’all become so thoughtful?
CHERYL: Aaah! I mean, one reason is people just outright telling me. So, the first film I ever did called Cooking With Brain Injury. It’s very silly. It is based on my real life. So, non-disabled people don’t laugh very much at it, but disabled people laugh at it. They’re like, “Ah! I get it. I get all your, I get the humor.” One of my first two films was captioned. We did a screening, and somebody was whispering through the whole screening. And I thought, “Well, how rude is that? How selfish and rude is that? Be quiet. I’m so easily distracted. You’re distracting me.” And I asked somebody afterward what that was about, and they said, “Oh, that’s somebody telling a blind person what was happening in your film, because he wasn’t following all the details of your film.” And it was like total face plant moment for me. I was so proud of my captions. They were so beautiful! But I had not at all considered the experience of somebody who wasn’t seeing the screen. I just, I did, I made it accessible. There. I’m done. So, I wasn’t thoughtful about it until somebody told me.
And that person who was being whispered to is Carman Papalia, and he identifies as a non-visual artist. He doesn’t use the term “blind,” but he does use audio description. And we’ve gone on to become friends and colleagues, and we talk about this stuff. So, it’s not that I am sitting here on my own thinking of all the people I should think of. People are telling me, “Hey, you didn’t hit the mark on this. You didn’t, this wasn’t accessible enough.”
And I have the privilege of enough finances and time to go get trained, you know. And my access needs are such that I was able to get to these different audio description trainings. You know, they’re not universally accessible. A lot of people who want to offer this stuff don’t have the opportunity to get the training ‘cause the trainings are inaccessible. Yeah, it’s not as much me as it is noticing when someone said, “Well, you didn’t hit the mark,” and then I figure out if I can get closer to hitting the mark next time around. And so, my early stuff is not audio described, even some of my stuff on YouTube and Vimeo! I have not yet gone back and added all the audio description. And like I said before, some of the captions are really cruddy because I wasn’t considering other people back then to the degree because now, I’m listening and paying attention and taking this in.
JOHN: Ah! I wanna thank you for talking to me today, and I’m pretty certain many people will probably want to get a hold of you and contact you. Do you have a website contact information or something that you can give us?
CHERYL: Yeah. Thank you. My website is WhoAmIToStopIt.com, and my Twitter and Facebook, which I hardly use, but they’re there, and they are both @WhoAmIToStopIt. So, people can reach me any of those ways. I have a media services access request form linked on my website. So, sometimes people will email me, “Hi, I have this film. I need captions,” and they go on and on, and I don’t know what they’re talking about. And so, I do sometimes just tell people who email me, “Could you please just fill out my form?” Because then it’s organized, and I can understand it all. I have contact information listed there on the website.
JOHN: Thanks for answering all my questions. I do appreciate that.
CHERYL: Are you kidding?! Thank you for asking me questions! Thank you for having me on your show. I really appreciate it.
JOHN: That’s the end of Disability Justice. Since we cannot be fully aware of everybody’s difficulties within the community, we would really like it if you would send us your email DisabilityJustice@ KBOO.org
CHERYL: Disability touches every single kind of person, every topic, every political issue, every beautiful thing. It’s everywhere.
[ominous droning music to close the show]