Oscars: Academy Adds Red Carpet ASL Interpreters, Accessibility Guide and More for 2023 Show
The 95th annual Oscars carpet will feature American Sign Language interpreters for the first time, one among several accessibility additions the Academy is making to both the 2023 ceremony and live telecast this Sunday.
Interpretation on this year’s carpet, which will also see audio description and continued ramp access for all attendees as part of the pre-show event’s outside custom design, was inspired in part by work at the last two Grammys as well as the voices of the Academy’s newly launched disability affinity group. Jeanell English, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ executive vice president, impact and inclusion, tells The Hollywood Reporter that this is one of the organization’s most inclusive and diverse resource groups.
“I actually had the privilege of joining their team on the carpet at the Grammys this year. I got to see how incredibly powerful it was to have members of the Deaf community as well as interpreters engage directly with talent and remind them of their Deaf audience members. So I started to have that conversation with our team as we’re putting together the plans for this year’s Oscars — especially coming off of the year where CODA was such a big win,” she says. “It just made sense for us to remind the film community, yes, your fans are out here. Yes, your fans are Deaf. Yes, your fans have disabilities. And yes, they need to be engaged.”
Those working and walking this year’s carpet will have access to that pool of ASL interpreters, who will work to enable talent and reporters can better engage Deaf fans and viewers. A red carpet access guide will also be distributed to all press, who can use it to help guide their pre-show coverage, both with the talent and for the show’s at-home audience. “It’s one thing to have an ASL interpreter to the side of you, but if they’re not visible, that’s not really engaging the community,” English says, acknowledging that the Academy’s goal is to encourage interviewers to fully consider and utilize the available accessibility measures.
“We addressed with the different CEOs and the publicists that this will be available on-site, so we’re hoping the advocacy comes from several spaces and places, such as in-frame ASL interpreters when the talent chooses to walk with an interpreter,” English continued. “But the other reason we distributed this guide to those working the red carpet from the press side is to offer a little more information on how you can make your show as accessible as possible, down to the descriptions that you are using in an interview, in addition to how you might be directing a question or a conversation.”
The broadcast and ceremony will also feature a slew of new and returning measures that makes the Oscars, once again, Hollywood’s most accessible major annual awards show on and offscreen. “Our technical director for the Oscars has been an incredible advocate and ally in really understanding how and what else he can do when it comes to accessibility on the broadcast side,” English says. “It’s been a great collaboration, and there hasn’t been any pushback or challenges in terms of the direction we’re looking to go this year for the show from ABC.”
Hosted once again at Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre, the show — which airs starting at 8 p.m. ET/ 5 p.m. PT on ABC — will feature live captions and audio descriptions as part of the broadcast. Additionally, as part of the 2023 show, the description team will now feature a blind audio describer, a hire English says “felt important” in terms of the “expertise and experience” that individual will bring to the service the show provides. It also acts as a step toward answering ongoing calls for disability inclusion to be reflected not just in measures, but in the staffing of the show.
The free ASL Livestream, which debuted last year and was available through the Academy’s YouTube Channel, will also return with a few updates to again allow Deaf viewers to access the entire telecast through the ceremony’s second-screen approach. In addition to adjusting where the interpreter will be streamed in the ceremony space — “so it’s not as high traffic,” English says — the show also worked with the same livestream team as last year to address the delays users highlighted as part of their 2022 experience.
The result is a pause tool to assist those who might experience a longer delay. “They learned so much and gave us feedback in terms of what we can do to prep internally in the setup and the design,” English says of the returning livestream team. Another lesson from last year, she says, was ensuring awareness of the stream. So along with being featured on the Academy’s YouTube page and directly accessible to viewers streaming the full show at Oscars.com, YouTube will be posting the stream on their homepage the night of the ceremony.
The Academy has also looked into reaching out to different influencers, who can help them spread the message about their accessibility offerings like the ASL stream, with the Oscars social media team also promoting accessibility measures and utilizing alt-text for images alongside captioning for video content.
Within the theater, the Academy has brought back its onsite accessibility team to support an inclusive and accessible guest experience, with additional training for Dolby Theatre staff by LaVant Consulting, which also helped the Grammys ensure their carpet was accessible.
“In addition to really training our core team, which is about 15 individuals — including our interpreter teams on the ground — they are also facilitating a training for the Dolby ushers,” English says, noting that training took place Tuesday. “It was really important for us to make sure there is better awareness for anyone who might be engaging with our guests on disability and accessibility — little tips, tricks, things to be mindful of — whether it’s language or how to interact with the service animals.”
A key advantage of having not just an Academy-led accessibility team but training for the larger theater staff is that the show can respond to both those who shared their accessibility needs ahead of the show through the show’s ticketing system — another addition for the 2023 show — as well as those who have identified them the night of.
“In the online ticketing portal, we’ve made a more direct and specific location for individuals to indicate what sort of access requests they might have — and we gave examples. So whether that’s access to the lactation room or ‘Can you give me a call? I want to understand a little bit more about the arrival?’” English adds. “Our team is receiving as much information up front, because of course, that makes us tighter on the day of but, also, we’re here to support.”
And once seated, those in the theater can use assistive listening devices, captioned video packages, the aforementioned lactation rooms, all-gender accessible bathrooms, and a digital program compatible with screen-reading devices.
“We added a QR code to accompany our program that gets distributed to the audience and the attendees of the show last year, and this year, we’re continuing with that, because we got really great feedback from some of the attendees who were like, ‘Oh, I can actually zoom in and be able to engage with the program and follow along with with other guests,’” English recalls.
While the show has mostly expanded versus swapping their offerings, one thing that may be noticeably different during the telecast is a stage wheelchair lift. It’s a different approach to accessible stage design than the visible ramp of years past, and was posed to this year’s producers and production crew. English promises that for wheelchair users and those who take the stage with mobility conditions, it will “feel seamlessly integrated with the design, the functionality, the experience of the stage” isn’t something “separate.”
“The Dolby Theatre is a traditional theater and like many theaters wasn’t built for access. So for us this year, we wanted to make sure a ramp wasn’t just an extension of the stage, but accessibility was integrated in the overall design,” she added, noting guests will still use a ramp to get from the back of the stage in the theater. “We’re really excited with what has been designed and it feels right when you just look at the full picture of the stage accessibility.”
It’s a design that was seen in early iterations and previewed in its completed form by the Academy’s disability affinity group members, who English says all met at the end of last year to discuss access for the Oscars and what that would look like. This group was integral to many of the additions and improvements the Oscars will feature in terms of accessibility — including an added description in the show’s program “for anyone who might be triggered by light.”
“The breadth of disability representation that showed up and said, Hey, I want to talk about this, at least as Academy members, was quite large,” she says, noting those who are physically disabled, neurodiverse, and have children with or their own learning and mental health disabilities, were part of the discussions. “I do hope the formation of these affinity groups will inform what we’re doing year-round to promote access and to facilitate conversation and to reduce stigma.”