Posts Tagged ‘Immigration’

Flipping the Script on Audio Description: Describing What is Unseen

Wednesday, June 28th, 2023

Side profile shot of a bald young man with glasses wearing a black collared shirt on a sunny day

Set Hernandez is the producer and director of Unseen. In this documentary, he introduces us to Pedro, an undocumented college student who happens to be Blind.

Set’s approach to access was quite different from films in the past where even though the subject or the protagonist was Blind, the film lacked audio description.,

Both Set and Pedro join me to discuss the film making process, intersectionality, audio description and more. #NoMorePasses




Show the transcript



In 2020 I was invited to participate in a panel conversation with other Black disabled creators.

The panel was a part of the Superfest Disability Film Festival.
— Filtered voice – You know the best disability film festival out here!

The feature film that year was a documentary about a Black Blind artist, poet and writer my friend, Mr. Charles Curtis Blackwell.
If you haven’t listened to that episode, I highly recommend it.
It’s a little different from what I usually do here on the podcast.

Prior to the panel, the documentary was shown. It included “audio description”.
Can you tell by the way I annunciated audio description that I put that in quotes?
— Filtered voice – That’s because it didn’t even deserve the title.

I’m not going into the specifics of what made it awful other than,
it was obviously done on the fly and with no consideration for Blind viewers.
It was done because someone was told they had to have AD in order to have their film shown.
It’s an example of when the compliance approach to AD goes wrong.

I don’t place any blame at all on those responsible for Superfest. Rather the blame lies solely with the person responsible for creating that AD track.

— Filtered voice – or Maybe fortunately?
The recording of this specific panel is lost. It no longer exist!
If it were you would hear my rant about the awful audio description.

Oh well! I’ll sum it up for you.

Any film being made about Blind people or a Blind or low vision person that doesn’t include audio description is
— Filtered voice – Say it, say it!

If the protagonist or the main subject of the film can’t independently consume the content, that’s wrong.
It tells me that this person or those like them aren’t even considered as consumers,
rather just subjects to be put on display for someone’s entertainment

The recording may be gone, but I do recall putting film makers on alert.
Anyone, using Blind people as props in their films, videos or any visual content and not making that accessible via audio description, image descriptions, well you gets no more passes.
— Filtered voice – Don’t even try to correct my English)

I’ve accepted excuses in the past based on ignorance. “I had no idea about audio description.”
I get it, it’s true. How could someone know what they don’t know.

But come on, if your subject matter is in anyway related to blindness and you haven’t even considered how Blind people will consume your content;
I think it’s worth calling it out when we see it.
That doesn’t have to be publicly, but it needs to be discussed.
— Filtered voice: No more passes y’all!

But 2020 feels like ages ago.
Today, I have a much better version of this story.
That’s a film featuring a Blind person that not only includes access but
they pay special attention to describing the unseen!

So it’s the second episode of the Flipping the Script 2023 season.
— Sample: “Another one!”, DJ Calid

I’m Thomas Reid. Welcome to Reid My Mind Radio. Let’s get it!

Audio: Reid My Mind Theme Music

Meet Set & Pedro


My name is Set Hernandez. I use they them pronouns. I am a filmmaker, community organizer. And more recently, I am the director, producer of unseen, which is a feature length documentary.

I am person with olive complexion. black rimmed glasses, black hair, black beard, round face. Today, I’m wearing a striped shirt with light blue and gray.

The film follows my friend Pedro .


My preferred pronouns are he him, they them. I’m a social worker.

I am five nine. My skin is light brown, and I am bald. And I wear glasses.


… as he navigates the uncertainties of life being an undocumented immigrant who also happens to be blind.

The Meeting

TR in conversation with Set:

Pedro was your friend, were you guys friends before the film?


We met because I’m also an undocumented immigrant.

I’ve been doing community organizing since I was 18. I was involved in this program that was providing professional development opportunities for undocumented young adults.


Dream summer.


Pedro was part of this cohort that we had that year to do work around this area of healthcare and Immigrant Justice.


Part of Set’s role in communications for the organization included pitching stories to the press
and making YouTube videos about the work the cohorts were doing.

Set became more interested in Pedro’s story as his stood out from others.


that was the only person who we knew to have a disability in the program at the time.

I’ve come to realize how the experience of having a disability and being undocumented, are very much not discussed, often in the rhetoric of the immigrant rights movement that I have been a part of.

There’s often like this erasure, and maybe even like ableism in the narrative of the immigrant rights movement.
This idea that to prove your worthiness to become a citizen, you’re hardworking, taxpaying and all that stuff.
it kind of values a person based on their economic output, as opposed to their full humanity.
my intention really, was to uplift this experience of the intersection of disability and immigration, which hasn’t really been discussed much in the community in the movement that I’ve been a part of.

— Music begins: A bouncy, “Afro beats” influenced track.

The Idea

TR in Conversation with Set:
How did you approach Pedro with the idea?
“Hey, I want to follow you around.”
(Set & TR laugh)


I remember, I was driving home, and I got to my apartment building in the garage. And that’s when I was talking to Pedro about first reaching out to him for filming.
This was I think, maybe may or April 2016, when Barack Obama was still president. It feels like eons ago.


In this particular case, the spotlight comes with additional risks.


Each undocumented person weighs risks for themselves individually.


Back then, I was going through a really rough patch. I was barely in the middle of my undergrad and I thought I didn’t have anything to lose.


Within the experience of being undocumented, it’s almost like every moment is risky.

When I first applied for DACA years ago, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,
there was this idea that once you submit the information for DACA, it can give you benefits, but also, you’re pretty much telling the government that you’ve been here and documented, Here’s my address, here’s my information and I’m going to move forward with this application. If this program gets rescinded, then the government has your information.

Do I take this risk? Do I try to live my life and try to access the benefits that this program can offer me?


The greater the risk, the greater the return.


We were able to get DACA, because of the organizing of undocumented youth.

A lot of the tactics that we use was to tell our story. Eleven million undocumented people at the time – we’re like this statistic with no identity in many ways, coming out of the shadows and standing in our truth really acknowledging our experience and our inherent dignity as human beings in this country, who are part of our communities.

that act of telling your story is pretty much putting a spotlight on you.

I’ve been in the shadow all this time now I’m going to come out. What’s the risk that it has for me to tell my story? And what are also the prospective opportunities that I can gain from this.

There are risks in making a film explicitly about undocumented person. There’s individual risks, but also there’s a benefit for our community, and maybe ourselves that we kind of have to take into consideration.


I don’t consider myself an activist.

I have a great respect for activist doing all the grassroots work. It takes a lot of work, and it takes a big toll on your mental health. So because of my frail mental health, I honestly don’t think that I would be able to do it. I feel that I work best when I’m behind the stage.
Even in my line of work, I don’t really like to do group work. I do mostly working one on one with a client. And that’s what I do best. I like to have a more controlled environment.


Personally, I’m a card carrying member of the control freak club.
But there’s some real value in letting go.


I have been tricked into the idea of surrendering.
Back then I was very resistant of what was going on, not knowing that I didn’t have any control over my life. Because of my disability, my immigration status, my mental health. It put me in a position that I wanted to have control over everything. Because it felt very uncertain.

if I didn’t have control, my life was gonna spin out of control.
My life was gonna get into a rabbit hole. But the more control that I wanted to have in my life, the more that I was getting into that rabbit hole. So it became very counterintuitive.

When I started exploring the idea of surrendering. Just letting life flow and being okay with it, accepting that things are how they are and that life is not fair. But the fact that life is not fair, doesn’t mean that life is miserable, or life has to be bad.

I have come to terms with it. Somehow I got into this for a reason. And let’s make the best out of it.

— Music ends with track playing in reverse.


File that one under gems as we return to the film, Unseen.


unseen is a film about desire, wanting something really bad. And that you think that when you get that thing you really want it would solve all of your problems. But when you finally get it, you realize that actually doesn’t solve any of your problems. And if anything, there’s more problems that you have to confront.

The film traces Pedro’s story as he follows his journey to become a social worker, hoping that doing so would allow him to support his family and also provide services for his community that is so lacking, especially in the immigrant and disability community where he’s coming from.


I did ask him, okay, we’re gonna do this, but how am I going to see it? How am I going to experience it?
And that’s when he was talking all about accessibility.

TR in Conversation with Set:

Yeah, so from the beginning, you recognize that you wanted Pedro to actually be a consumer of this film?


Oh, my gosh, like, of course,.


Compare that to the story I shared in the intro.


Maybe part of it is like coming from being undocumented, being queer person of color. I feel like sometimes, we get spoken to, or people speak on our behalf instead of letting us speak for ourselves.


That’s when I introduced him to audio description.

I was telling him about the Netflix films and how now the originals from Netflix have audio description.
He started getting really into it, and started exposing himself into different projects, or talking to different people, film makers.

He started learning a lot because the goal was to make it as accessible as possible.

His main concern is like, I want you to have the full experience of the film. I want you to be able to fully access the film and make it so you can enjoy it and not be just guessing, like what’s going on right now?

Set on Access


I’m very much a believer in I don’t know what’s best for you.

Pedro actually, was in many ways my teacher and mentor also around so many things, accessibility, mental health, emotions, like beyond accessibility.

Pedro is truly one of the people that have taught me a lot about life and his friendship has really been so important to me.


That relationship comes through in the film as well as
in the attention to detail in the implementation of the access.


Toni Morrison, she has this interview with Charlie Rose, where he was asking her if she’d ever consider writing about white people, I think that was the framing of it.
Toni Morrison said, it’s like, our lives have no meaning without the white gaze.

I feel like you can apply that to the experience of many communities.

The stories of undocumented people have no meaning without the gaze of citizens.

The stories of people with disabilities have no meaning without the gaze of the non disabled.


Assigning value only when it reaches a standard set by a dominant group.
As opposed to being a full participant in telling your story.

For marginalized groups, historically, that just hasn’t been the case.


People in places of power speaking on behalf of other folks.

In documentary filmmaking, I think it often happens that way.

The people who have a lot of resources are often people who are not from our communities.
To be honest, white filmmakers telling stories of people of color and like non disabled people telling the stories of people with disabilities.

I’m very much a person who likes really honoring, and preserving relationships and friendships.

I have a lot of people in my life that I love and cherish.
I wouldn’t want to cause any harm to Pedro.

At the end of the day, Pedro, this is yours. This is your life story.
How can I amplify the experiences that you have? Making sure that it’s as enjoyable for you when we finally get to experience it with an audience?

— Transition: Swoosh


I may be undocumented queer person of color having experienced all these marginalization’s, but being a non disabled person, there’s also certain considerations that have to be mindful of that Pedro experiences all the time

— Transition: Film Slate

Filmmakers have this idea that they’re going to change the world with their films, especially if it’s about a social justice issue, or a person who’s like navigating really difficult experiences in life. But how can you expect your film to change the world? If you’re like hurting the person you’re featuring in the film?

— Transition: Digital descending as in failure!

I feel like it’s important for every human being to just always be mindful that we are all humans. We’re all gonna make mistakes.

TR in Conversation with Set:

Sometimes it feels like folks, they lose their sense of humanity, because they don’t see other people as human.

If everyone can relate on that level, yeah, things would be a whole lot different.

What were some of your early expectations around audio description before even starting? What were you thinking about it?


Originally my idea was we’re gonna make this film and it’s gonna be so accessible in this really artistically exciting way and it’s gonna be amazing.

Ultimately, I like trying to reinvent things, but sometimes the wheels there already. don’t reinvent the wheel.

As a person who’s not usually an AD user, a non blind individual, I feel like, it’s not necessarily my place to reinvent that we’ll because I don’t even use description all that often. Who am I to say that I know better than 80 users?

this is the first feature I’m working on. I’m realizing that when you’re a director
part of the trick of directing, is recognizing when you don’t know that you don’t know everything.

Set sought out some assistance.

— Music begins: An up tempo, bright Hip Hop beat.


Bringing producers and collaborators that really understand and follow their guidance around these aspects of the project.

There’s many mentors like yourself, Cheryl green, a captioner from the film, accessibility co producer with you for the film.

Cheryl taught me that there’s no one size fits all for accessibility. Choice, having options, that can make things accessible.

Everyone has different access needs.

I’m also learning that sometimes people have conflicting access needs.

it’s really important to understand my own limitations, my own learning curves.

I should also share another mentor in this project, Matt Lauderbach.


In addition to AD and captions, there are several parts of the film that are in Spanish and include English subtitles.
Rather than having one voice read each, multiple voices were used to easily distinguish between characters.
Human voices along with an authentic Spanish speaking human narrator, Reid My Mind Radio Family member Nefertiti Matos Olivares.

As with any film project, description is constrained by the available time that doesn’t overlap with any dialog or informative sound design or music.

Often Blind and low vision AD viewers don’t learn of the visual aesthetics of a film.
In Unseen, the majority of the film is blurry.


The idea was how do we invite people to watch a movie by listening as opposed to by leaning into all the visual information that cinema usually does.

Also, Pedro is a social worker he spends a lot of his time listening to people what is it like for us to spend the next 90 minutes of our lives listening to this person who’s spent so much of his time listening to others.

We realized that blurriness can also imply uncertainty of life, the visual aesthetic had more thematic implications, but since the get go the idea was never to simulate blindness.

The intention might not have been that, but the impact is that.
I’m curious how that landed on you. It would be also great to know your perspective.

TR in Conversation with Set: 36:52
I had that concern. I was like, ah, the simulation thing.


If you’re interested in my take on simulations, check out the episode titled ,
Live Inspiration Porn – I Got Duped, from March 2020.
I share an experience I had where I observed a bunch of sighted folks “walk in our shoes”.
But as far as Unseen is concerned.

TR in Conversation with Set:

I thought it was more about undocumented, that Pedro is living this sort of life of being unseen.

From my understanding, Pedro is the only one who’s actually kind of in focus.
that’s a statement in itself. It’s like, you are the center of this talk. Like you’re flipping the script on this.


This and other information is passed to the AD viewer through the delivery of a pre show.
In the case of Unseen, it’s a prepended addition to the film and AD that
AD writer, Cheryl Green refers to as an on ramp.
Sort of gently taking you into the film.
— Pre-show Sample


details make a big difference …

little things,

since it’s a bilingual film, some of the characters having different voices, makes it more understandable
little details that may not seem important for other people make the experience enriching?

It is an art because you have to describe something in such a rich way for a person to paint a picture in their mind.


The thing about images and yes, audio description, it’s subjective.


I guess it’s all about perception. for instance

the scene with the traffic? how said make it seem that it was like I was about to get run over?


Oo! I just knew this scene was going to come up somehow in our conversation.

— Clip from Unseen:

Sounds of heavy traffic – cars quickly driving by and the sound of Pedro’s white cane sweeping back and forth.
Set: “Friend, you want to move closer to the left?”… Ok, so?
Pedro: “Uh, no!”
Set: Inaudible mumble. Uh, ok. Are you ok?”
Pedro: “Yeh, I’m ok”
Set: “Ok.. stick to your left. Don’t get run over!”
Pedro: “According to me, I’m still in uh, the curb, no?”
Set: “You’re still on the curb, yeh! Nah, I’m just like ahh! Fast cars!”
— Scene fades out.


Set’s concern while probably not warranted is something many of us have experienced.
It comes from a good place but can have repercussions.

It made me doubt for a second, I actually had to double check with my cane how close I was from the curve.
I was right. I was not that close to it.


When it comes to orientation and mobility we have to have trust in ourselves, as Pedro did.

When consuming AD, we’re trusting in someone else’s perspective.

While AD paints images from a pallet of words, it inherently leaves out those who speak other languages.
Which is a missed opportunity especially when television and movies can often bridge all sorts of gaps.

— Sample audio from a Tela novella.


Novellas in a way, it’s an excuse to just spend time with your family, especially with the older folks. It’s just one of those activities that allow you to spend time with your family.

In order to strike a conversation with my older folks, during the commercials. Okay, tell me what’s going on?

The accessibility is not there. And I highly doubt that is going to be there anytime soon. Because The stigma with disabilities the Spanish media are not putting our interests in mind.


Let’s be clear, that stigma, ableism, well we know exist in every community.
Pedro recognizes and acknowledges the work of the Spanish speaking disabled community pushing back.


It takes a minute to change people’s minds and to help them see a different perspective.

TR in Conversation with Set:
What conversations do you
really want to start with this?
It seems like there’s multiple


love, love this question. Yes, there are multiple

When we think about social issue films, the idea of impact that we have in mind is this macro socio political impact, we’re going to change laws, we’re going to transform society, we’re going to make it more just and equal.

We want to make sure that this film contributes to really bringing together the disability and Immigrant Justice Movement in the US to begin with maybe also in other places.

Historically, in the immigrant rights movement, we don’t really uplift the experiences and the needs of people with disabilities. And likewise, in the disability justice community, there’s not often a recognition that sometimes a person doesn’t have documentation, and something like the ADA might not benefit them, so how do we uplift these realities?


The first step is just to start talking about it.

The three issues can be very uncomfortable issues for many groups, immigration, mental health, disabilities,

Having an excuse to start conversation about those topics. Actually challenge the previous views about those topics.

If we can start a conversation and start opening up our ears and our hearts and our eyes more into those topics, and just explore them for what they are just part of life, part of an identity of a person. But it’s not the whole person, we would have done our job.


But in the course of making the film, I’m realizing that it also had a very personal impact on the people who are involved in the film, so many of our team who understand their experiences to be so similar to Pedro’s , whether they’re other undocumented individuals or their people with disabilities, finding a story that’s so much about the roundedness of a human being not just about the issues that they’re facing.

it’s like a healing oriented goal. And that’s not to say that the other goals around socio political aspects of the story no longer exist, because they’re very much still there.

TR in Conversation with Set:
Is there something that you would want to share about how this personally impacted you ? I mean, this is years of your life?


For the longest time, I was thinking so much about organizing, the world around me, the injustice that everyone faces, I minimize the pain and the struggles. I don’t know how I’m feeling emotionally.


I think being in touch with my humanity, allowed me to also understand the things that Pedro talks to, in the film, his own inner demons that he’s struggling with. Depression, worries, fears. Those are things that I feel also as a human being, but for the longest time I suppress them, because I was like, There’s bigger problems in life, why am I worried about my own tiny world.

I’m realizing, I have to open up myself to my own humanity, so that I can also understand the humanity of the person whose story I am trying to uplift with his film.

If I can feel it in this way, if other people from our community can feel it this way, how cool would it be for everybody to be reminded that what you’re going through as an individual, you don’t have to minimize it you are enough, what you’re going through is valid.

the film is also a story of love.
people have been so kind to us in making this film.
And it just gives me so much encouragement.

There’s so many filmmakers who are struggling to make their film. And of all these filmmakers how come our project gets to experience this love?

in our communities, there’s so many people who experience so much inequity every day, how come we’re the ones that get to have these resources?
Our project is just as worthy as everybody else’s.

— Music begins: A melancholy groove.

TR in Conversation with Set: 1:10:55
What would you like to say is the answer to that question? Why this movie?

Set: 1:11:19


Why this movie? That’s a good question.

There are so many serendipitous moments that happen in life. And sometimes, we just kind of have to take that opportunity and embrace it.

One of my mentors Sabaah Folayan with firelight media, she said, we only live once, when ancestors, community, choose us for a certain thing, we just gotta seize it.

That question of why me, there’s got to be a series of logical reasons as to why me.

Maybe sometimes I got to stop rationalizing. Maybe sometimes I just got to accept things for what they are.

TR in Conversation with Set:

I would like to think that it’s a combination of that energy. And yes, this was something you were supposed to do and the part that you’re doing is that you stayed the course and did the work and so therefore you’re rewarded. That’s what I would like to think.


my desire to be the best person that I can be every day is so that I can reciprocate the love that I’ve received from people like my family.

There’s so many people who go through the day, wondering if someone cares about them. And

maybe that’s why I want to do my best to do right by Pedro. He and his family has made me feel so much affirmation.

And in the course of telling this story with them, that the least I can do is to do right by them.

— Music fades out.


Unfortunately, our experiences with audio description, don’t always leave us believing that others care to do right by us.

That could mean;
– the listening devices in the theater that seem to never actually work
– movies and television shows released without audio description altogether
– Sitting in a classroom and the instructor announces they’re going to play a video and there’s no AD.

Pedro came to believe this was just the norm. But today, he finds himself constantly confronting that stigma.
And when the result is access, audio description for example, the results are quite different.


You feel that you are starting to belong more and you connect more with your You are a part of the gang. You’re no longer the outsider.

— Music begins: An inspirational opening synth leads into a funky up tempo groove.


Belonging, connecting, no longer an outsider… finally being seen.

As of early June, 2023 Unseen is steadily being accepted to film festivals including
Hot Docs in Toronto, L A Asian Pacific Film Festival and more.
And it was announced that it will also be a part of the PBS documentary series POV.


they are including us for season 36 for a national broadcast in the US and US territories for the film.

Every screening that we have, we’re making it explicitly named, that ad and Captions are available so that if you are an ad user, you’re not wondering, is this going to be accessible for me? We’re making sure that venues are accessible for wheelchair users, ASL interpreters cart and also bilingual interpretation if need be.

One of the mentors for the project was saying this film, in essence, is an invitation for folks who don’t often think of the film festival or the theater as a space for them.

this film is really an invitation for everybody, like hey come!

we’re making this theater like as accessible for you as possible, but also the recognition that accessibility is not a one size fits all. So please do give us feedback if there are things that we can continue to improve.

TR in Conversation with Set:

Congratulations set.


Thank you so much. Congratulations to all of us.

Thank you for making the audio descriptions. That sound mixing of the ad casting the ad voices everything like this so grateful for your collaboration.

I’m reflecting on when we first met. Over zoom.
This was 2020

TR in Conversation with Set:
was 2020. Yeah,

Three years later? Oh my God!

(The two laugh))


You know you want to checkout the Unseen!


@watch unseen film is our handle and all social media or you can also follow us on our website and seen that To keep posted about screenings and other upcoming opportunities as we get distribution for the film.


What a difference a few years can make.

Contrasting the film I mentioned at the opening of this episode and Unseen,
I don’t think the differences has anything to do with time.

Some say, it’s an awareness of accessibility.

I think Set actually hit on the fundamental difference;


“I’m realizing, I have to open up myself to my own humanity, so that I can also understand the humanity of the person whose story I am trying to uplift with his film.”


Big shout out to both Set & Pedro.
The latest additions to the Reid My Mind Radio family!

Oh, I’m mean, official!


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