James Rath is a legally blind filmmaker who pursued his passion for visual storytelling in part thanks to accessible technology, such as the Mac and iPhone. Through his films and documentaries, he aims for the audience to see different. On his YouTube channel, he’s interviewed Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, discussing the company’s values and history of creating accessible products.

His commercial films promote authentic casting for the disability community. They've been awarded three Cannes Lions International Festival of Advertising awards. 

In this interview, Rath shares his experiences growing up blind and how technology has helped him create a successful career for himself as an acclaimed filmmaker.

Tell us a little bit about your background and why accessibility is important to you.

I’ve been legally blind since birth with non-correctable ocular conditions. I’m an advocate for accessibility because I know from experience just how life-changing it can to have proper accommodations. Despite my visual impairments, I’m also an award-winning commercial film director.

What is the biggest gap between technology and digital accessibility?

We have ever-evolving technology but I do believe many tech giants aren’t investing in universal design from the start. As much as I love Apple’s accessibility efforts allowing me to pursue film, just look at the iPhone when it was first released. Blind users couldn’t experience it until the iPhone 3GS when they introduced VoiceOver and Zoom in the iPhoneOS.

It wasn’t until the third iPhone that I could actually use one. Even though that was about a decade ago, it’s important to consider how your audience will use your product or service even with a disability.

Are people often surprised to learn that you are a filmmaker who is legally blind considering how open you are about it?

Yes, it does tend to prompt a few questions or further curiosity. Luckily through some movie-magic, I can emulate just how I see and share that with the world … something I wish I knew how to do in my youth.

What misconceptions do you think people may have about the abilities of people with disabilities working in your field? How do you overcome these?

People may second guess a filmmaker with a visual impairment directing or producing a visual medium. It comes from a lack of understanding of the spectrum of disability and being ill-informed about ways to be accessible.

What are the best ways filmmakers can make their work more accessible to people with disabilities?

The most basic way is to provide closed captions and a transcript of your videos. This way deaf, hard of hearing, and even deafblind audiences can enjoy. When it comes to making your videos accessible to blind and low vision audiences, audio descriptions are a practice in the industry to make visual elements read aloud by a narrator. You can also go about getting creative and have some elements described where it logically makes sense, narrating titles, describing the image if it’s a documentary with a field reporter, etc.

As an advocate for digital accessibility, what advice would you give those who want to learn more?

Follow and learn from those who actively discuss the need for more accessibility and share their experiences. Accessibility practices benefit all of us and universal design is a simply better design.

Is there technology that has changed your life and the way you work? 

Personally, my MacBook Pro is a major accessible player in my life. When I was 14, I had a late 2009 model that revolutionized how I used a computer with Apple’s built-in Zoom and VoiceOver features in Mac OS X. I learned to edit video, and it helped me independently accommodate myself through high school. 

Your resume is impressive. Of which accomplishment are you most proud, and why?

Directing the Fall 2018 and Spring 2019 Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive commercial campaigns is one of my favorite achievements. I was able to cast strictly disabled talent and provide an authentic ad while providing job opportunities to our communities, some of which Tommy Hilfiger has brought back for even more gigs.

Our campaign went on to win three awards at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Advertising and help many brands realize the impact and monetization opportunity of investing in accessibility from the start.

Learn more about James Rath and his work at jamesrath.la. To keep up with our work at Diamond, explore the website and follow us on Twitter at @DWSLA.