Meet the woman making film accessible to Shanghai's visually impaired

Han Ying's barrier-free films are shown everywhere, from local community centres to Netflix

Photos: Yang Xiaozhe
As a kid, Han Ying used to daydream about becoming a filmmaker. After losing her sight in her 20s, she now creates barrier-free films for everywhere from local community centres in Shanghai to Netflix...

I am a visually impaired person, a real VIP as we say in our community. Now, I edit audio description for films so that blind people can enjoy [the movies]. I lost my vision slowly to an eye disease called retinopathy in my 20s. It was really hard to accept. I locked myself in for more than five years. I was petrified to go out, not only because I was afraid of falling, also because I was deeply ashamed of myself. How silly!

[Editing audio description] is definitely not the kind of job I had envisioned for myself growing up although I loved reading film reviews and dreamed of carrying a camera around and making films. I bought books on film theory and told my childhood friends that I would have my own film production company.

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It was more of a daydream than a real goal though. But I did spend much more time exploring filmmaking techniques and studying visual language than the things I was supposed to study in school. Who’d have thought I’d be using all of that now? I guess that's what we call destiny.


'Film is already a subjective creation so it’s not right to force our own interpretation on audiences'


Barrier-free films are just normal films, but with audio descriptions of what’s happening visually on screen, between long pulses of dialogue. The key [to creating one] is to describe and not tell. How characters feel or what the director [might be trying to convey] are no-nos. Film is already a subjective creation so it’s not right to force our own interpretation on audiences.

For example, there’s a scene in Green Book where an attractive woman in a car looks at Tony, the white chauffeur, and then at Dr Shirley, a black man sitting in the back of the car, before turning to her boyfriend, looking perplexed. We don’t tell the audiences that she was racist. We just describe. Some will get it, some will not. That’s the magic of cinema.

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I started as an early 'viewer' and a promoter of barrier-free films, but as the demand gets higher, more films need to be produced for the visually impaired community. We registered our company Shanghai Voice of Light Audio Description Culture Development Center in 2015 and since then, we’ve been producing 50 barrier-free films a year for old releases, which are shown in local community centres, and 12 new releases a year, which are shown in commercial cinemas around town. Last year we did two projects with Netflix.

But if I am totally honest, what we’ve got here are not barrier-free films per se. Visually impaired people still need to wait until the last week of each month to attend special screenings at limited commercial cinemas filled with other visually challenged people.

To us, being truly barrier-free means that when someone walks into a cinema, with the help of a chip and a pair of earphones, they’re able to enjoy most of the latest films in most of the commercial cinemas and be surrounded by visually abled people. Alternatively, we can have videos on demand that have barrier-free options. That’s a long way to go but it is what we are striving for.

As told to Yu Zhiming

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