Accessibility for All!

by Joey Stuckey

As a blind person and brain tumor survivor, sound has always been my universe.

My love of sound and music led me to explore making sound and later to capturing that sound by recording. How blessed my life has been because I am able to access that sound and make sound recordings. But in today’s screen-driven world, that ability is slowly fading from my grasp. It is not an exaggeration to say that sound and the making of music saved my life as much as the brain tumor surgery did. So, what if in just a few short years I can no longer participate in the world of sound recording? What if all my knowledge and experience and talent go to waste because the basic tools are no longer accessible. This is a future that I am afraid of and one that is not farfetched.

Now, I am not a doom and gloom kind of person and to be sure there are many people out there doing important work in accessibility, but we can and should do more to make sure that music and sound recording remain accessible to everyone regardless of gender, ethnicity or physical impairment.

The big problems:

First, I emphasize education. I believe that most people from programmers to music manufactures would be willing to participate in an accessibility program if they but knew there was a need and a market for such an initiative!

Second–focusing on the solution, not the problem. If you approach any small business owner, they must ask, “how can I justify the expense of R&D?” Although accessibility is morally and ethically the right thing to do,  we can’t expect these small businesses not to worry about being able to meet their bottom line, nor should we. What we must provide is a solution that meets all needs. That of the disabled audio or music professional and that of the music/audio manufacturer!

Just as there are standards for “High Definition” or “Red Book” CDs, acoustics or how sound affects our perceptions of visuals, like the “McGurk Effect”, we must do the same with the disabled community. We can and should have recommendations for best practices for making things in our screen-driven universe accessible.

Third, and last for this article, what are the things that need doing?

Simple things, like addressing the blind not being able to use a mouse. As a sighted user, can you imagine not being able to use a mouse or track ball? Even if you use a control service more than a mouse, those things are menu and screen driven and so the blind user, due to softkeys, is lost. This is because the function of a particular control changes based on the menu or screen you are on. If you don’t have any audio feedback from a screen reader, you can’t participate. Most things aren’t screen reader friendly.

And let’s not forget about all the pretty lights and graphics in plugins. These are opaque to a blind user. Basically, anything that doesn’t have simple text on it is nonexistent to the blind user and much of what does have text isn’t accessible for one reason or another.

So, we need the following, and it will take our diverse and knowledgeable world-wide audio community to make this happen.

  1. Scripts for screen readers. This is how the blind currently have access to the world of audio recording. These scripts aren’t particularly hard to create, as they require very light coding skills. However, they are very time consuming and tend to break with every update. Also, most music manufacturers don’t want to share proprietary information with scripters and don’t have the resources to hire a full-time scripter for the company. So, if we can’t come up with a common framework for making plugins like Juice or make the software open-source so that many different folks can work on the problem, then scripting is not the solution.
  2. We also have a few folks thinking about haptics—a tactile representation of what is happening on the screen. I have been part of a few programs using this approach and it works well but requires some manufacturing to make the products and some coding to make software that makes the hardware work. It would bring a new dimension to the sighted user as well and could even be made to assist those disabled users with motor skill issues, so it is very much worth pursuing!
  3. Artificial Intelligence (AI)

What if we could move away from the screen reader for interfacing with most of the DAW functionality, like editing waveforms, moving clips around, controlling transients, using pitch correction and more? Could we make a machine learning database that music manufacturers could all use and just drop their AI definitions into a plugin and instantly their product is now accessible? What I am proposing here is that we teach the AI to recognize a compressor, an E-Q and reverb plugins. While the look changes a bit from company to company, the basic function is the same. For example, all compressors have attack, release, ratio, threshold etc. Then either using AI or some OCR tool, the AI could read the controls and track where the blind user’s mouse is located on the screen.

We might still need a screen reader to help us to arm tracks or label the track or take but would no longer have to script for every new plugin. As a consumer, the blind audio pro wants to have the same choices the sighted user does on what tools to work with and not be forced into one product. I am dreaming of a day when no one is left out and those that have decades of experience can keep sharing their knowledge. But for now, my colleagues, I beg you to start having this conversation with me and others so that we can find that bright future.

One final thought. We all have been transformed by hearing Dolby ATMOS. I don’t think it is a fad, but rather the future of music. While I don’t think stereo mixing will ever completely die, I think ATMOS, and other immersive experiences, are here to stay. Currently, this technology is totally inaccessible. I fear that blind engineers will be left behind and not able to compete with or collaborate with their sighted counterparts. Again, that is why the time for action is now to start working on this problem.

Joey Stuckey is the Official Music Ambassador of his hometown of Macon, Georgia. Joey spends every moment living life to the fullest and sharing his story and inspirational spirit through his musical performances and speaking engagements. As a toddler, Joey was diagnosed with a brain tumor and underwent surgery with little hope of survival. Though the tumor left Joey blind and with other health challenges, today, he continues to live a successful life of intention in his chosen field of music. Joey is professor of music technology at Mercer University, the music technology consultant for Middle Georgia State University, and an official music mentor for the Recording, Radio and Film Connection in Los Angeles as well as an active voting member of the Grammys. He is the owner and senior engineer at Shadow Sound Studio which is a destination recording facility with state of the art analog and digital technology.  He has spoken and performed all over the world including at the University College of London, the Georgia Music Hall Of Fame, and the Audio Engineering Society in New York City, just to name a few. In his roles as producer, engineer, recording artist and journalist, he has worked with many musical legends including Trisha Yearwood, Clarence Carter, James Brown, Alan Parsons, Gene Simmons (KISS), Al Chez (Tower of Power), Jimmy Hall (Wet Willie), Danny Seraphin ( Chicago), Kevin Kenney (Drivin’ and Cryin’), and many, many more.


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