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Kelly MacDonald listens to a Blue Jays' game on TV at his apartment in Toronto on Tuesday, June 18, 2013. MacDonald is legally blind. In the 2013 season, 16 Blue Jays games will be broadcast with an audio description by Accessible Media Inc., for people that are hearing impaired. (Matthew Sherwood/Matthew Sherwood The Globe and M)
Kelly MacDonald listens to a Blue Jays' game on TV at his apartment in Toronto on Tuesday, June 18, 2013. MacDonald is legally blind. In the 2013 season, 16 Blue Jays games will be broadcast with an audio description by Accessible Media Inc., for people that are hearing impaired. (Matthew Sherwood/Matthew Sherwood The Globe and M)

Network hits a home run for the blind Add to ...

When a blind person listens to a baseball broadcast for the first time, there are plenty of things he could understand without too much trouble, but a “strike on the inside” isn’t one of them.

For years, Kelly MacDonald would find himself in front of a television listening to ball games while his friends and family watched. He’s blind, but television broadcasts work on the assumption that he is not.

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He’s always had fill in blanks, trying to keep track of things that sighted viewers were able to decipher from graphics shown on the screen such as pitch counts or scores. It also led to occasional confusion, as standard descriptions left him wondering what just happened.

“What the hell is an inside strike?” he says. “Now if you tell me the strike was close to his body, then I know exactly what you mean.”

But Accessible Media Inc. is trying to change the way broadcasters see the blind. AMI is the first broadcaster in North America to land the rights to Major League Baseball games, and is overlaying described video on top of 16 Toronto Blue Jays broadcasts this year to complement the work of the team’s on-air announcers.

It’s jarring to anyone who isn’t expecting the interjections. AMI’s broadcasters wait for the Sportsnet announcers to stop talking, then jump in to provide small details that help the blind situate themselves in a game. It can be anything from a pitch count to the score, but the goal is to supplement the broadcast that already exists rather than recreate a broadcast of their own.

“People who aren’t blind ask me how I can enjoy it when there are so many voices babbling at the same time,” says MacDonald, who is a reporter in Accessible Media’s Toronto newsroom. “But the idea is to do it as non-intrusively as possible.”

The channel, which is included on every digital basic cable package in English Canada, is about halfway through its schedule, and is encouraged by the response (although it doesn’t have reliable viewership numbers because of its small size).

Television is used by 66 per cent of blind and partially sighted Canadians, according to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Many prefer listening to games on television because they can do so with family or friends, but it also means missing some details (such as frequent score updates) that are standard on the radio.

“We’re getting overwhelmingly positive feedback from consumer groups with baseball,” David Errington, AMI’s chief executive officer, says. “Baseball fits into live description better than a lot of other sports, there is a slow pace and so many different things to talk about to fill in the gaps.”

The channel is funded by mandatory subscription fees from Canadian households that subscribe to television services, which work out to 20 cents a subscriber. It received its licence in 2007 after two decades as the National Broadcast Reading Service, which read newspaper articles out loud for broadcast to the blind.

It has since expanded to provide described video to conventional television shows and news broadcasts, and only recently expanded into live events such as baseball. It has also provided the service for several other events; its first attempt was the 2011 Royal Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, followed by CBC’S Battle of the Blades.

It has been a strange transition for announcers helping with the broadcasts. Not only do they need to understand what they are watching and say clever things to help viewers along, they need to avoid simply repeating what’s already being said by the official broadcasters.

“Watching the game is really different because you’re looking for nuance,” says Norma Wick, a broadcaster who has worked some games for AMI. “You don’t want to be an irritation or interruption, so there’s a real art.”

The service’s next game is Saturday at 1:07 p.m. (ET) against the Baltimore Orioles.

WHAT’S THE CALL

This is an example of described video from a broadcast featuring the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers. The Sportsnet television announcers are in regular text, the described video announcers are in capitals.

“We’ll keep you updated on everything that’s going on TOP OF THE 15TH and Cruz takes a first pitch breaking ball for a strike. Well, you play these kind of CRUZ IS OH FOR FOUR WITH AN INTENTIONAL WALK AND HE WAS HIT BY A PITCH EARLIER… Well isn’t that the truth. You get to this point in a ball game and say ‘Man, we’re not losing this one,’ and dig our heels in. THROWS A 95 MILE AN HOUR FASTBALL THAT IS LOW so long as we win ONE AND ONE IS THE COUNT THREE THREE THE GAME IS TIED … Yeah, you’ve got to have that attitude. Too many guys have grinded out too many at-bats and innings. This is skied out over the infield. Bonifacio takes charge and makes the catch. BIG SMILE ON BONIFACIO’S FACE.”

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