Coming Soon: “Imagine If,” A Documentary About Accessibility

Since mid-2015, I’ve been working on a documentary about accessibility. What’s accessibility, you may ask? Well, that’s why I’m making a film about it. In short, accessibility is the practice of making stuff (content, technology, physical spaces) accessible to people with disabilities. My specific focus with this film is accessibility in the digital realm, as most of what I build is available online—though most of it was not built with accessibility in mind. That changed once I started working on this film.

Through interviews with industry experts and people with disabilities, I learned what accessibility really means. As one of my subjects stated in an interview, I now believe that accessibility is a human right. That’s a big statement—it implies a lot when you make things (as I do) for consumption by people around the world. Effectively, my mission is no longer just to “make great work,” it is also to make that work accessible to everyone. If I write an article, I want that article to be accessible to people with any kind of disability. That’s relatively easy, as my articles are primarily just words, and words are extremely accessible when presented properly (yay, computers). But when I make films, things get a bit more interesting: How do we turn a visual medium into something that’s accessible for people who can’t see it, or hear it? The short answer is, you try to understand the needs of your audience, you ask for help, and you do your best to build in accessibility best practices from the start.

The History of this Documentary

In 2015, I was approached by Lucid Meetings to make a short film about the work they had done to make their online collaboration tools accessible. I actually worked at Lucid some years back (and had written for their blog recently), so this was less of a client/filmmaker commission than a collaboration among friends. In any case, after the first interview I shot for the film, it became obvious that the story was far less about the specific work Lucid had done on their product, and more about accessibility as a larger concept.

Initially entitled #a11y (after the numeronym for “accessibility”), I screened a work-in-progress version of the film at the Accessing Higher Ground conference in November 2015. The audience there gave me crucial feedback, which I can sum up with two points:

  1. I had managed to make a film by, for, and about usability professionals. Because of this, there was a fair amount of jargon in the interviews. While the usability professionals appreciated the film, they suggested that a more valuable product would be something simpler that introduced accessibility to everybody else. In other words, if I’m making a film, the most valuable thing I can do is raise the consciousness of people who don’t know a whole lot about accessibility, rather than get into the weeds of the technical standards.
  2. The first cut of the film failed to depict people with disabilities actually doing things. This was a case of showing people talking about a subject, but not actually showing the subject itself. It was clear that I needed to show specific use cases—in other words, someone with a disability doing something—in order to make the point.

Given this feedback, I put the existing footage on the back burner for the moment. I met Cory Klatik at a local accessibility meetup, and we began shooting interviews in early 2016. After several rounds of interviews and adventures around the city, I’m working on a new cut of the film that is specifically focused on Cory’s experience with accessible technology.

What’s Next?

I’m lining up a series of screenings for 2016. There will be at least one work-in-progress screening mid-year in Portland, Oregon, with Cory in attendance for Q&A. I’m shooting for a premiere in the fall, then the film will be online for all to access. The finished product will have audio description, full closed captions/subtitles, a transcript, and various options for access (for example, the ability to download the film and watch it offline, or read the transcript instead, etc.).

If you have any comments, questions, or feedback, please contact me.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Is this an ad for Lucid Meetings? No. Lucid provided funding for the film, and I’m going to acknowledge that in the credits, but in the current cut there is actually no mention of the company or its products. To be frank, the folks at Lucid appear to be just as excited about spreading the good news about accessibility as I am.
  2. I saw a trailer for #a11y…is this the same movie? Yes and no. I made a trailer for the version of the film showed at Accessing Higher Ground, and the folks at AccessibilityOz hosted that trailer, showing off their accessible online video player. (It’s great!) I plan to re-title the film, and this is the same project, but the content has changed substantially since that first cut.
  3. How long will it be? I’m not sure, but I’m shooting for 10 minutes. While I have dozens of hours of footage, I think this thing needs to be bite-sized so that a broad audience can easily commit to watching it.
  4. How much will it cost? Nothing. The movie will be free. The whole point of this exercise is to distribute this as widely as possible, and the only way to achieve that is to make it free.

3 thoughts on “Coming Soon: “Imagine If,” A Documentary About Accessibility

  1. Very cool Chris! Can’t wait to see the finished product.

  2. I am super excited to see where this goes! Agreed that it’s important to show what it’s like for people with disabilities using the Web. It’s often the quickest way to gain empathy from the audience, because they can more easily put themselves in their shoes.

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