Echo Is a Great Step Forward for Representation — But It’s Leaving Disabled People Like Me Behind

When does a dedication to authenticity sacrifice accessibility?

Is it true progress if someone is left behind in the process?

Modern media is attempting to be more inclusive by showing different perspectives and asking their audiences to be more open-minded. A point of contention in this ongoing discussion is the “subs vs. dubs” argument for international films and TV, and what exactly it means to localize media in the first place. But localization, which is the act of adapting a work to fit the cultural aspects and tastes of a new audience, has received some recent pushback. Subtitles are seen as better suited to convey a sense of cultural authenticity — resulting in full English dubs becoming less popular.

But is wanting an English dub really a sign of cultural laziness? For someone like myself, a person who is legally blind due to albinism, the argument is moot.

The 1-inch tall barrier of subtitles is a more difficult barrier to overcome for one particular disabled community.


Fans of anime and foreign films are familiar with subtitled materials, but more and more Americans have become accustomed to reading while watching, thanks to the watershed success of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and Korean shows like Squid Game. But while some people avoid media that requires them to read out of personal preference, I have less of a choice. I have always had to be very selective about which media I watch — I either have to wait for a good dub to come out, or make the choice to power through and hope it was worth my time. Completely subtitled programs require me to have someone present who can read the text, or alternatively, pause the showing every time someone says more than a few words. This isn’t an issue of not being willing or able to read but having the ability to consume the text — not to mention see what is also happening on screen. Watching something this way can also cause headaches, depending on how much text there is.

But recently with Disney+’s Marvel series, Echo, I ran into a new obstacle. I was excited to see a series about Echo, a character who is not only Choctaw but is also deaf and physically disabled. As someone who also has a disability, there was something excellent about seeing this representation. But the major caveat with doing such a character justice meant that much of the show was subtitled — either when characters were communicating in Choctaw or in ASL.

The showrunners overcame unique challenges to shoot the sign language and even made sure there was a Choctaw dub of the show available. However, what they overlooked was a dub of the lines not spoken out loud or in English. I feel bad for criticizing this element because Echo is a wonderful accomplishment for the deaf, hard of hearing, Indigenous, and disabled communities who want to see more representation like this. I don’t want to take away from that, but it’s also hard for me to enjoy it.

Echo is an important step forward for representation. But its dedication to authenticity for one community may be leaving others behind.

Marvel Studios

Thankfully, I had someone to watch Echo with who was willing to read me the subtitles out loud, but even they had trouble keeping up with everything. In the past, I’ve had friends offer to narrate books that didn’t have audio versions or read me entire films, but that’s usually before they realize how truly daunting it can be. I don’t think I could convince them to try a show like Tokyo Vice, which takes place in Japan and sees all but two characters speaking in the country’s native tongue. Executive producer Alan Poul discussed the reason to keep the show in mostly Japanese, specifically addressing the actors: “I work with them in Japanese. It’s just easier, it’s better for them, and it’s immensely rewarding.” Poul also said that one of the reasons the show sticks to its method is due to witnessing the backlash the dub of Squid Game on Netflix received, calling it “amateur hour.”

I have a few cinephile friends who hate that I can’t watch foreign cinema like Godzilla Minus One and Parasite, films that they claim are “can’t-miss.” Sadly, it feels like watching them is a huge undertaking. There is no dub for Godzilla Minus One currently, and though it won numerous awards, director Bong Joon-ho won’t allow Parasite to have a dub. He’s expressed strong feelings about audiences who refuse to watch movies with subtitles, and it seems he’s far from the only filmmaker who feels that way.

“Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” director Bong Joon-ho famously said at the 2020 Oscars.

Craig Sjodin/Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty Images

This isn’t just an issue for prestige television and movies. I’ve also noticed that wrestling is attempting to inject more cultural authenticity as well. WWE superstar Shinsuke Nakamura is a Japanese wrestler, and his recent heel-turn saw a new series of promos where he’d speak only in Japanese, accompanied by English subtitles. It’s an excellent touch, and a character detail I appreciated, but I also often missed much of what he was saying unless I wanted to keep rewinding the show. Another friend tried to convince me to pick up Tekken 8, a new fighting game he thought I’d love since I was enjoying Mortal Kombat 1. However, I was sad to hear that the story mode only features spoken English about 30 percent of the time. All of the characters speak their native languages, for authenticity, and though I have no clue how they understand each other, many players seem to like this decision, and it doesn’t look like there is currently a way around it.

Most detailed translations for subtitles usually require one or two rewrites of the script to make sure intentions and tone come across properly. Attempting a dub of that new material may need just as many additional drafts to make everything fit the actors’ movements and editing. There is almost no way to not lose something in that kind of process, even if creators were willing to sacrifice the subtler cultural nuances. There’s often no such thing as a direct translation and some think attempts to do that (especially for cheap) are akin to “cultural erasure.”

There’s still no dub for Godzilla Minus One, a crossover hit in every other aspect.


This likely sounds like a negligible issue affecting a small minority, but I’ve read enough other accounts to know I’m not alone. I see comments that aren’t addressed to those like me necessarily, about people not overcoming “the 1-inch tall barrier of subtitles,” (a quote from Bong Joon-ho), but it’s hard to say they don’t stick with me sometimes. When I hear remarks like this, I wonder if people expect me to just suck it up and push through my weaknesses.

I’m genuinely glad that additional representation is available now, that shows and movies are taking cultural authenticity seriously, and that viewers are experiencing and learning more. It’s hard to see these decisions in a negative light. But taking things in one direction may mean that it leaves others out. When disability is concerned, many of us often become acceptable losses — or perhaps the better term is “accessible losses.” And it’s hard to call something real progress if people are left behind in its wake.

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