The app promotes inclusivity as members of the blind community can ‘watch’ films along with family and friends.
By Danica Hansen, Berea Mail
When Morningside resident Shakila Maharaj lost her sight, she continued to visualise the world though her imagination. As an avid film-lover, she continued to go to the cinema and watch television but soon realised how much of the story she was missing.
Now, Maharaj and her team are developing an innovative app that allows people with visual impairments to ‘watch’ films through the art of audio description. She is the managing director and founder of ShazaCin Accessible Media which launched in 2020.
“Visually impaired people enjoy interacting with the visual world but are not catered for. I am totally blind – I lost my sight in my 20s. I realised, when I was losing my sight, that I still wanted to engage with the visual world. I wanted to be part of it – like most blind people do. This is when I became increasingly aware of audio description as an artform and the need to make it known in this country and in Africa,” said Maharaj.
She explained that she continues to ‘see’ the world in her mind.
“When I started to lose my sight, I realised that I continued to ‘see’ through my imagination. I realised that most blind people continue to ‘see’ in this way even if they have never seen anything in their life – they perceive the world. [Audio description] is so important for us, to keep that visual frame of reference alive, to keep our imagination alive,” she said.
Maharaj added that she continued going to the cinema and watching television when she lost her sight.
“I soon realised how much I was missing – even during commercials. So many companies don’t even tell you what the product is – there’s just music and a few fancy words. I either had to cook up the story myself when I watched the film or rely on family to tell me what was going on,” she said.
The app promotes inclusivity as members of the blind community can watch films along with family and friends and be a part of conversations around films and TV shows.
Developing the App
ShazaCin was launched in 2020 after Maharaj received funding to produce an app. She said the app is similar to a streaming service like Netflix – but without the video. It is currently free to download from the ShazaCin website and will soon be available on various platforms, including Google Playstore and the Apple store.
“Our company is very innovative in the sense that we participate in an art form called audio description – using language or words to make the visual world accessible to blind people and anyone who has a barrier to visual information. It could be someone who wants to watch a video but can’t access it – for example, if they are driving at the time. It could be a person with a cognitive disability – there are a host of beneficiary groups who can’t follow visual media. What we do is we script the video and record the script to integrate the voice into the film. When you ‘watch’ the film, the voice comes through and describes the scene alongside the dialogue,” explained Maharaj.
She developed the app along with co-directors, Mthokozisi Mtshingila, who is the content management and development lead, and Prashant Maharaj, the technology lead.
“We have to upload the content – the audio descriptive content we have developed ourselves for a client. Filmmakers with an audio description track can come to us, and we can load their audio description onto the app,” said Mtshingila.
“When you hit the ‘listen’ button on the app, it will recognise the film being played and synchronise to the right track [in the ShazaCin App] using artificial intelligence. The visually impaired user can then put on their earphones and listen to the description track. It’s like having your own personal describer telling you what’s going on on the screen,” said Maharaj.
Mtshingila added, “We already have a film like Deep End on the app. You have the option of just listening to the audio track in the app, or if you are an audio description user and come across a film on another streaming service, you can open the ShazaCin App and press the button in the middle of the screen to find the audio description track for the film. This is the true innovation of the app.”
Local filmmaker supports app
Musgrave-based filmmaker Eubulus Timothy, writer and director for the award-winning film, Deep End, has supported the app. His film, which premiered on Amazon Prime recently, is available with audio description on the ShazaCin App.
“We’ve tried our best to make Deep End inclusive. It has closed captions in English, Portuguese and French for those who have hearing disabilities. For those with visual disabilities, we’ve partnered with Shakila Maharaj of ShazaCin. Now, you can download the app and watch Deep End with audio description,” he said.
Deep End appeared on Amazon Prime about two weeks ago. “We also have a character in Deep End with visual disability, which drives the narrative of inclusivity,” he said.