Meet the man making sure Apple TV Plus’ show See respects accessibility

About midway through the first season of the Apple TV Plus show See, several characters on a raft need to share a message without alerting others around them. Normally, people would pass a written note, gesture with their hands, shoot messages with their eyes, or soundlessly mouth instructions. But in the world of See, where all characters are blind, communicating without making a sound can be tricky.

That’s where hand signals come in. One by one, the characters in the scene squeeze the arm of the person next to them before tracing a message on their neighbor’s hand. The message is passed from one person to the next until everyone on the raft knows what’s going on. Those hand signals are inspired by the real-life techniques used by Joe Strechay, the show’s associate producer and blindness consultant.

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See cast members Hera Hilmar and Mojean Aria discuss a scene with Joe Strechay (center).

 


Apple

“My wife and I, when we’re out in the world, we kind of use these alarm systems,” said 41-year-old Strechay, who has been legally blind since the age of 19. “One squeeze means, ‘How are you doing?” Two squeezes is an alarm, ‘Let’s be aware.’ Three squeezes are alarmed, ‘Let’s get the hell outta here.'”

Strechay has a unique role in the entertainment business: making sure people with visual impairments are portrayed realistically — well, at least as real as they can be in a sci-fi show about a post-apocalyptic world where everyone is sightless. That even comes to fight scenes, with Strechay working with stunt coordinators on how someone who is blind would fight.

“Getting to show blindness and see yourself in a different way is so powerful,” Strechay said in an interview with CNET. “That’s something our show did.”

Developed by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, See was one of the first shows on Apple’s new TV service when it launched in November. The plot revolves around society 600 years in the future, after a virus wiped out most of humanity. All 2 million of the people left are blind — except two children who are born with sight in the first moments of the series.

When it comes to the on-screen portrayal of blind people over the years, the image has been far from flattering, experts say.

“It’s been completely extremist,” showing people who have extraordinary abilities or people who need a lot of help navigating the world, said Lucy Greco, a web accessibility evangelist at the University of California at Berkeley. “There’s very little showing just normal blindness ideas and adaptation.”

See tries to avoid those stereotypes, but there’s nothing normal about the show’s plot. The fantasy show mixes elements common to blockbusters like Game of Thrones, including power struggles and persecution. The evil, mad Queen Kane sends an army of witch hunters to find the sighted children, while their adopted father warrior, Momoa’s Baba Voss, does all he can to protect them over the first season’s eight episodes.

See is notable for more than being one of Apple TV Plus’ first shows. It’s also one of the first shows anywhere to include a large cast of people who are blind or low vision. See’s stars, Jason Momoa and four-time Emmy winner Alfre Woodard, aren’t blind, but many other members of the cast and crew are. They “helped bring this inclusive and authentic world to life,” Apple said.

Gender and racial diversity have been a focal point for companies for several years — and have become even more urgent with the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of Minnesotan George Floyd. People with disabilities have also rallied for corporations and the public to respect their needs, and last week marked the ninth annual Global Accessibility Day, which highlights that effort. The novel coronavirus pandemic has brought new challenges for people with disabilities, who are trying to ensure their needs aren’t left behind as society adapts to a new normal.

Globally, at least 2.2 billion people have a vision impairment or blindness, according to a World Health Organization report from last year. In the US, over 1 million people over the age of 40 are blind, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By 2050, that number could skyrocket to about 9 million because of the “increasing epidemics of diabetes and other chronic diseases and our rapidly aging US population,” the CDC said.

Still, roles like Strechay’s are rare. And in the past, such consultants rarely were blind themselves.

“I don’t know that there are other Joes out there,” said Eric Bridges, executive director of the American Council of the Blind. “He’s himself blind so there’s authenticity there.”

Strechay’s background

Strechay’s blindness was caused by a genetic disorder called retinitis pigmentosa. That prompted him to work as an orientation and mobility instructor in New Jersey after getting a master’s degree from Florida State University in 2006. He has taught people with low vision how to travel with a cane, prepare for college and join the workforce.

In 2009, Strechay worked for the American Foundation for the Blind’s CareerConnect web program, writing about employment, as well as popular culture and the portrayal of blind people in the media. Casting departments started reaching out for Strechay’s advice, leading to work on three episodes of a USA Networks show called Royal Pains.

In 2013, Netflix called about a new top-secret project. It turned out to be Marvel’s Daredevil, a show about a blind lawyer who becomes a superhero crimefighter at night.

“I reviewed the scripts and provided suggestions,” Strechay said. “I worked with the lead actor and trained him on blindness skills, not how to pretend blindness, but the little things that people who are blind know how to do.”

Strechay didn’t give up his day job, though. In late 2015, he moved to Pennsylvania to run the commonwealth’s services for blind and low vision people, while still helping with shows like Netflix’s OA.

Eventually, Apple became one of those companies. When it called in March 2018 — a year before unveiling Apple TV Plus to the world — Strechay jumped at the chance to work on See.

Making tech accessible

Apple has made accessibility a focus for decades. It builds features into its technology to help people with low vision navigate the iPhone’s touchscreen and allow people with motor impairments to virtually tap on interface icons. Nearly four years ago, Apple kicked off one of its flashy product launches by talking about accessibility and showing off its new, dedicated site.

“Technology should be accessible to everyone,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said at the time.

See takes that sentiment a step further, by hiring people who are blind and low vision and by making them front and center in Apple’s major new streaming service. The company doesn’t say what percentage of people working on See are low vision, but Strechay said there were dozens of actors on the show with disabilities, and about 30 background actors portrayed hundreds of different characters throughout the first season. The low-vision cast members even included two stunt performers.

“There are a lot of portrayals out there that don’t show people with disabilities or people who are blind or low vision as competent human beings,” Strechay said.

He got involved with the production of See early on, working part-time reviewing scripts and suggesting changes to make the action and characters more authentic. In July 2018, he left his work with Pennsylvania and traveled to British Columbia to get started on the show two months before filming began.

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Joe Strechay works as a blindness consultant for companies like Apple and Netflix.

 


Apple

In the beginning of shooting, Strechay gave input from a distance, only going to the set to give notes or answer questions. When it came time to shoot the the third episode, he had started blocking most scenes. By the time production rolled on the fourth episode, he was rarely far from the director, giving immediate feedback and blocking almost every scene.

“Everything you see actors do who are blind or low vision, I did,” Strechay said. “Climbing down a waterfall, I did that. Navigating rocks, I did that.”

Because Strechay couldn’t actually see the action himself, he relied on technology like his iPhone to read scripts and navigate around the set. He also worked with an assistant who could audibly describe the movement to him.

Strechay trained sighted actors how to navigate See’s world as blind characters with techniques like echolocation, sending out sounds and using its reflection to discern shapes.

Josh Blacker, the actor who plays the Witchfinder Warrior on See, told CNET’s Patrick Holland that he and the rest of the cast had about six weeks of movement training and sightless training to prepare for their roles in the show.

“I wanted to do justice to people who are blind or have low vision,” Blacker said in December. Strechay “taught me various techniques in which a person with blindness or low vision is able to navigate through the world, whether it be echolocation or the feeling of the sun on your face, or hearing the sound of a car in the distance and various things like that.”

A vital role

Strechay played an important role in the production: making sure the set, script and entire process was accommodating for everyone. He reached out to actors before filming to learn their needs, like requiring the script to be printed in braille or using high-contrast or specific-color marks on set to show the actors where to stand.

He also contacted organizations for the blind to get their input, and taught the sighted cast and crew members how to better work with their blind colleagues.

“We had an orientation with every employee … whether they’re executive producer or a driver,” Strechay said.

The American Council of the Blind’s Bridges spent time on set in British Columbia, including during the filming of that pivotal scene involving the raft. Bridges, who is blind, had to move between a barge, a small boat and dry land, something that could have been tricky to navigate.

“I literally had the actors coming up to me saying, ‘Do you need a hand?’ — not them grabbing me and guiding me,” Bridges said. “They actually knew what the hell they were doing. It was clear training and emphasis was placed on respect for colleagues who may be blind or visually impaired.”

Making See authentic came down to the little, everyday things that are common among people who are blind, Strechay said. “I kept a running list of small aspects around blindness that could be included like little things that would fit into our show, like hundreds of ideas,” he said.

He helped craft what the community’s rituals looked like and what props should like, down to the level of where the items were placed in the characters’ huts.

Momoa “will sometimes pick these [props] based on how cool they look versus the practicality of tools useful for moving with,” Strechay said. When Momoa found things he wanted to use, he’d hand them to Strechay to test out. The two would negotiate over whether something actually made sense to use in the show.

At the same time, cultural and social norms, like making eye contact when talking to someone and respecting personal space, disappeared in the world of See.

On-screen (mis)portrayals

Despite trying to be inclusive and get the portrayal of blind people right, some advocates say See misses the mark.

“If you take a deep look at the premise of See, the world had a vibrant civilization … then everybody lost their vision, and a world run by blind people is back to the Stone Age,” said Bryan Bashin, CEO of LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco. “To think that the world run by the blind would have sunken to a prehistory level is deeply offensive and wildly out of date.”

Others in the blind community didn’t view the show the same way.

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Joe Strechay (left), Jason Mamoa who plays Baba Voss, and director Anders Engstrom on set of the Apple TV Plus show See.

 


Apple

“Man they did a good job of portraying a world of blind people,” Sam Seavey, a blind man who runs the YouTube channel The Blind Life, said in a December video. “It’s clear that they definitely did their research.” And RespectAbility, a nonprofit advocating for people with disabilities, said See “humanizes people who are blind.”

“What we see on screen influences how we act in real life,” Lauren Appelbaum, who leads RespectAbility’s Hollywood inclusion efforts, said in a post from December. “Apple TV+ has an opportunity to help remove the stigmas that currently exist around interacting with individuals who have disabilities.”

Strechay acknowledges that See didn’t nail it when it came to all of its portrayals of blind people. But he said the show continues to get better, and his role grew from the first episode to the last of the season, reflecting Apple’s commitment.

“If you go at things with a level of respect and education and [with the aim of] creating awareness, it can only lead to positive things,” he said.

A second season of See was in the works when the novel coronavirus pandemic hit North America (much of the show has been filmed in Canada). Production is on pause, and it’s unclear when the new season will premiere. Apple and Strechay declined to talk about changes planned for season two, but Strechay hinted at even better representation of the blind community.

“We’ve only seen a small portion of the world in season one,” Strechay said. “Who’s to say what’s out there in the world?”

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