If you are a consumer of audio description, chances are you have already encountered her work. Nefertiti Matos Olivares is immersing herself in all things audio description these days. She has written it, narrated it, reviewed work by others, and built a network of friends and colleagues who care about audio description as much as she does. For someone who made the career change just over a year ago, she has had some pretty heady successes already and undoubtedly moving toward more. Hers is a story I wanted to know, and am eager to share with you.
Nefertiti Matos Olivares loves her work, loves her family, and loves life. That's not a particularly unusual trio of personal preferences, but the particular roads leading her to these realizations are, well, undeniably inspiring.
Who is Nefertiti?
Proudly Latina, Nefertiti is a first generation American born to Dominican parents. She identifies herself as a person who is blind and lives with chronic illness,, but there is no pathos or regret in the labels. They are just facts she openly reports about herself, like her heritage and her flair for art and drama. Blind since age three, Nefertiti’s early education was in the schools for the blind in the Bronx. Her family lived in Manhattan, and the programs for blind students in the Bronx were her best match at the time. She missed the experience of being with sighted classmates until attending college, she says, and had some definite gaps in her education, particularly with regard to math and science. On the other hand, she is quick to point out that had she been the only blind student in a public school, she may well have missed the enriching experiences of being a cheerleader, a track star, and a member of the swim team. She got that mainstream experience of being with sighted peers when it came time for college, but that experience was interrupted by illness. She was only 19 when She dropped out of college and into dialysis treatments when it became apparent that she desperately needed a kidney transplant. Eventually, she was diagnosed as a Type I diabetic, which was the probable cause of the failing kidneys. Many family members were tested for kidney donation. Her mother was the best match and the transplant was successful. Fifteen years later, however, that kidney has failed, and Nefertiti is on a transplant wait list again, this time for both kidney and pancreas. Later, as an adult student, Nefertiti returned to college, earned her bachelor of arts degree, and worked for seven years as an access technology instructor with the New York Public Library.
She is a lifelong reader and writer of braille, and at 36, a lifelong user of access technology. After seven years as an access technology instructor, she was ready to try something new. She loved audio description, and had always been drawn to the arts -- writing, acting, creating. Maybe she wasn't meant to be on the Broadway stage, she determined, but on the audio stage. She loved audio description, and often noted the characteristics that made one description or narration stand out more than another. She set up a home recording studio, obtained a voice coach and, best of all, has been happier and more financially secure since changing direction a year ago than ever before.
Into the Closet
Sparked by long searching conversations with those closest to her, a plan to investigate working in the field of audio description emerged. Nefertiti was already working from home, as we all were due to the pandemic_ as an assistive technology instructor for the library. Through social media, she built her audio description network. She learned from professionals she admired and from others who were just getting started as she was. She enrolled in a voice over training program, got a voice coach, and did all of it remotely, using her familiar technological tools. She received her voice-over training, produced some demos in English and Spanish, and when she got the first gig, she was ready with her improvised home studio.
Living in New York City, space is scarce for everyone. Nefertiti fashioned a perfect little recording studio in her closet. With a wedge seat, collapsible tray table, laptop, microphone, and mixer, her tiny space is soundproofed by hanging clothes and close walls. When she is reading a script from a braille display, that comes into the closet studio with her. Alternatively, if she’s reading from hard copy braille, that comes in. Most often, she is reading by careful repetition. Setting her screen reader, Jaws, to a slower speed than her usual listening pace, she is able to repeat in natural cadences the script as she hears it. It’s a skill that takes practice, but as she has used it for many commercials, documentaries, and audio descriptive tracks, it is a method that works well for her.
Getting the work and getting it done
Networking with others involved in audio description has been key in getting the work. She has done voiceover work for ads and promotions, and audio description narration for videos, trailers, and more. She was the author of the audio description narration for a short documentary “Say His Name: Five Days for George Floyd,” which was voiced by another blind audio description professional, Thomas Reid.
When I caught up with her for this article, she was riding high on the excitement of having just completed recording the audio description narration for “Halftime,” a documentary featuring Jennifer Lopez that will open the Tribeca Film Festival on June 8, and become available for streaming on Netflix June 14.
So how does a blind person describe a program for others when she can’t see it herself? When Roy Samuelson, renowned audio describer and advocate, presented the proposal which included Nefertiti as writer of the script for “Say His Name,” for example, a visual assistant was factored into the budget. When that happens, she hires a trusted person to help her see the film. She times the gaps, pauses where bits of description can be fit into the audio, and then writes the script accordingly. When she doesn’t hire a particular person, she says, she can use a visual assistance service, such as AIRA to get the needed information.
Using familiar tools such as Microsoft Word or Excel, she works through a script, noting the amount of time available and where it is located in the film. She then writes the needed description to fit the available space.
When she is working as a narrator, she uses whichever method – braille display, hard copy braille, or echoing lines spoken by the screen reader through her headset. For the “Halftime,” documentary, for instance, because she was traveling to a professional studio to record, she produced hard copy braille before leaving home and arrived with braille script in hand. She is particularly proud of the “Halftime” project for multiple reasons. It was the first time she was called upon to record outside her home studio, but more importantly, as a Latina herself, she was thrilled to be chosen to narrate the descriptive track for a documentary highlighting the career of perhaps the most wildly popular Latina of our era, Jennifer Lopez.
Sometimes, getting your dream job means creating it yourself. In a sense, that is what Nefertiti Matos Olivares has done. She had a job that was filling a need, teaching other blind and low vision people to use assistive technology, but it had run its course for her and her dream of engaging in work that tapped her artistic talents was awakened and beckoning. By connecting who she knew with what she knew, reaching out to others involved with audio description, she managed to get the training and opportunities she needed, and is now completely engaged as an audio description and voice-over professional. In just a little more than a year, she has already landed plenty of assignments, ranging in length and genre, and she is elated to be doing work that brings joy to her and to others. If you listen to those credits voiced at the end of audio-described productions, the likelihood of your hearing the name Nefertiti Matos Olivares as writer or narrator is steadily growing.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.