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Tommy Edison watches movies for a living. He's never actually seen one.

If you're only watching movies, you might be missing out.

Tommy Edison watches movies for a living. He's never actually seen one.
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Perkins School for the Blind

Tommy Edison was born blind. That didn't stop him from falling in love with movies.

If your first reaction upon reading that was to wonder how a blind person watches movies, Edison understands. It's a question he's answered a lot in his job as the Blind Film Critic on YouTube.

"I'm always asked how I can enjoy films without being able to see them," he said. "But for me, there's so much more to the experience — there's story, there's dialogue, there's music and sound. It's a lot more than what you watch on the screen."


For blind movie lovers like Edison, knowing that there are actors and action on the big screen is only a small part of experiencing cinema.

‌Tommy Edison, the Blind Film Critic. Image via Tommy Edison, used with permission.‌

"For me, the biggest part of a film is the story," he said. "Movies like 'Goodfellas' or 'Clerks' don't even need the visuals — their storytelling is so strong and the performances are so skilled. As soon as those movies started, I was right in the story."

Even if a film doesn't have amazing performances, it can make up for it with an excellent soundscape. "There was an incredible movie called 'The Grey,' starring Liam Neeson, a few years back," said Edison. "Most of the action took place outside, and the sound editors took advantage of the surround sound in the theater to make it feel like we were right there with them. I could hear the rain all around me — so much that I wanted to wipe it off my head, it felt so real."

At the moment, a lot of big-budget movies revolve around action sequences without dialogue — a challenging situation for blind moviegoers. That's when audio descriptions are helpful.

‌A woman listens with headphone to a movie playing on her laptop. For blind movie watchers, hearing the action is just as good as seeing it. Image via iStock.‌

Like closed-captioning for the hearing-impaired, audio commentary helps vision-impaired or blind people follow along with TV and movie action during scenes with limited dialogue.

According to the American Council of the Blind, three American theater chains — AMC, Cinemark, and Regal — offer audio descriptions on all of their screens. Blind or vision-impaired moviegoers can go to the theater and wear a set of headphones that will play a narration track describing the film's key visual elements like costumes, sets, and other moments only sighted people would experience. Best of all, the track only runs during pauses in lines of spoken dialogue, ensuring non-sighted moviegoers don't miss anything.  

For Edison, an audio description track changed his understanding of one of the most famous movies of the '90s. "I tried watching 'The Matrix' a few times without audio descriptions. I couldn't make it through more than about 20 or 30 minutes of it," said Edison. "The descriptions changed that; they helped me understand what it was about, and how cool of a film it was."

While Edison is appreciative of technological advancements like audio descriptions, he'd rather they weren't necessary.

If he had his way, Hollywood would simply get better at telling stories, rather than showing them.

‌This empty green-screen set could become an entire scene in a superhero popcorn flick. For blind moviegoers like Edison, that's a big problem. Image via iStock.‌

"The one genre that doesn’t really work for me as a blind audience member are the superhero movies," he said, conspiratorially. "'Thor,' 'X-Men,' 'Superman' — it all sort of seems to be eye candy. They have all these incredible performers, and they all know how to act — studios need to give them something to work with! At the very least, they need to talk to each other more during fight scenes, not just grunt and roar."

Movies and TV shows are part of our shared cultural fabric — whether we're watching them for the action on the screen or listening to them for the stories they tell.

While, as Edison said, "there's nobody audio-describing our lives," anyone can appreciate the moviegoing experience of blind people on their own. So next time you settle in for a night on the couch or head to the theater for a break (and some $12 popcorn), maybe try closing your eyes and listening to the film instead. You might end up seeing it in a whole new way.

Tommy Edison was born blind. That didn't stop him from falling in love with movies.

If your first reaction upon reading that was to wonder how a blind person watches movies, Edison understands. It's a question he's answered a lot in his job as the Blind Film Critic on YouTube.

"I'm always asked how I can enjoy films without being able to see them," he said. "But for me, there's so much more to the experience — there's story, there's dialogue, there's music and sound. It's a lot more than what you watch on the screen."

For blind movie lovers like Edison, knowing that there are actors and action on the big screen is only a small part of experiencing cinema.

‌Tommy Edison, the Blind Film Critic. Image via Tommy Edison, used with permission.‌

"For me, the biggest part of a film is the story," he said. "Movies like 'Goodfellas' or 'Clerks' don't even need the visuals — their storytelling is so strong and the performances are so skilled. As soon as those movies started, I was right in the story."

Even if a film doesn't have amazing performances, it can make up for it with an excellent soundscape. "There was an incredible movie called 'The Grey,' starring Liam Neeson, a few years back," said Edison. "Most of the action took place outside, and the sound editors took advantage of the surround sound in the theater to make it feel like we were right there with them. I could hear the rain all around me — so much that I wanted to wipe it off my head, it felt so real."

At the moment, a lot of big-budget movies revolve around action sequences without dialogue — a challenging situation for blind moviegoers. That's when audio descriptions are helpful.

‌A woman listens with headphone to a movie playing on her laptop. For blind movie watchers, hearing the action is just as good as seeing it. Image via iStock.‌

Like closed-captioning for the hearing-impaired, audio commentary helps vision-impaired or blind people follow along with TV and movie action during scenes with limited dialogue.

According to the American Council of the Blind, three American theater chains — AMC, Cinemark, and Regal — offer audio descriptions on all of their screens. Blind or vision-impaired moviegoers can go to the theater and wear a set of headphones that will play a narration track describing the film's key visual elements like costumes, sets, and other moments only sighted people would experience. Best of all, the track only runs during pauses in lines of spoken dialogue, ensuring non-sighted moviegoers don't miss anything.  

For Edison, an audio description track changed his understanding of one of the most famous movies of the '90s. "I tried watching 'The Matrix' a few times without audio descriptions. I couldn't make it through more than about 20 or 30 minutes of it," said Edison. "The descriptions changed that; they helped me understand what it was about, and how cool of a film it was."

While Edison is appreciative of technological advancements like audio descriptions, he'd rather they weren't necessary.

If he had his way, Hollywood would simply get better at telling stories, rather than showing them.

‌This empty green-screen set could become an entire scene in a superhero popcorn flick. For blind moviegoers like Edison, that's a big problem. Image via iStock.‌

"The one genre that doesn’t really work for me as a blind audience member are the superhero movies," he said, conspiratorially. "'Thor,' 'X-Men,' 'Superman' — it all sort of seems to be eye candy. They have all these incredible performers, and they all know how to act — studios need to give them something to work with! At the very least, they need to talk to each other more during fight scenes, not just grunt and roar."

Movies and TV shows are part of our shared cultural fabric — whether we're watching them for the action on the screen or listening to them for the stories they tell.

While, as Edison said, "there's nobody audio-describing our lives," anyone can appreciate the moviegoing experience of blind people on their own. So next time you settle in for a night on the couch or head to the theater for a break (and some $12 popcorn), maybe try closing your eyes and listening to the film instead. You might end up seeing it in a whole new way.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Photo courtesy of John Scully

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Tenesia | Heroes Behind the Masks presented by CeraVe www.youtube.com

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