Audio description is a translation of images to words. The visual is made verbal, allowing people who are blind or have low vision to have more meaningful access to visual images. The technique has been shown to provide access to the wide range of media and arts such as television, film, performing arts and museums that comprises any culture, as well as the myriad live presentations at conferences, in educational institutions and in a wide range of formats. When visual images are part of a presentation, a special challenge exists: how can words be used to “translate” images to words for the benefit of those who cannot see the presentation, whether they are simply not in the same room or perhaps are blind or have low vision?
Audio describers use words that are succinct, vivid and imaginative to convey the visual image from television and film that is not fully accessible to a significant segment of the population. According to a survey, in the United States alone there are more than 26 million people who experience significant vision loss (NHIS 2017). Audio describers also help the rest of us sighted folk who do not fully realise what we see. We might see what is before us, but we do not observe it as much as might be needed in different situations. Audio description is useful for anyone who wants to truly notice and appreciate a fuller perspective on any visual event, but it is especially helpful as an access tool for people who are blind or have low vision. You will find audio description these days at arts events—theatre, opera, dance, museum exhibits, broadcast television, DVDs and first-run feature films—but I have also provided audio description for conferences, classrooms, weddings, parades, rodeos, circuses, sports events, cruises, karaoke performances; even at funerals.
On the status of audio description in the United States
As a formal, adaptive technology, audio description was first introduced in the United States in 1981. It was my honour to be part of a small group that implemented the concept for live theatre presentations at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. Within five years, audio description was introduced on broadcast television and with VHS videocassettes. From there, the practice has broadened to include almost every feature film released in the US, is required to a limited degree on broadcast television, is a part of many DVDs and streaming media, and has been increasingly employed in museums and with performing arts productions throughout the country. The development of audio description in the United States was greatly accelerated by President Barack Obama’s Administration. Most importantly, in 2010, President Obama signed the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act which mandated by law, for the first time, audio description for television broadcasts. At present, about seven hours per week broadcast by the four terrestrial networks (ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC) and the top five cable networks must include audio description as broadcast in the top 60 metropolitan areas.
In this section, I will provide a brief overview of the skills that an audio describer must develop in order to make the visual verbal. In practice, audio describers strive to actively observe all that is visual, focus on key elements, find the words that most effectively convey the visual image, and ensure that the voicing of the descriptions is appropriately supportive.
- OBSERVATION: An effective describer must increase his level of awareness and become an active “see-er”, develop his “visual literacy”, notice the visual world with a heightened sense of acuity and share those images appropriately with the target recipient.
- IDENTIFYING KEY ELEMENTS: “An adult bird flies from a branch.” Why include that in an audio description of the movie “The Color of Paradise”? Because the bird returns in the next scene. Audio describers must edit or cull from what they see, selecting what is most valid, what is most important and what is most critical to an understanding and appreciation of an event.
- LINGUISTIC CHOICES: After selecting what to describe, an audio describer transfers the chosen elements to words, objective, vivid, specific, imaginatively drawn words, phrases, and similes. In Washington, DC, is the Washington Monument 555 feet tall or 55 stories tall? Is it as high as 50 elephants stacked one on top of the other or is it almost as tall as two football fields set up vertically? Imagination is critical. Good describers also strive for simplicity and succinctness: “less is more”. The best audio describer objectively recounts the visual aspects of an exhibition. Qualitative judgments get in the way; they constitute a subjective interpretation on the part of the describer and are unnecessary and unwanted. Listeners must be allowed to conjure their own interpretations based on a commentary that is as objective as possible. So, a professional audio describer will not describe a person by saying: “He is furious” or “She is upset”. A better description would be: “He is clenching his fist” or “She is crying”.
- VOCAL EXPRESSION: Finally, in addition to building a verbal capability, the describer develops the vocal instrument through work with speech and oral interpretation fundamentals. Even when the description is voiced by someone other than the author of the descriptive language, the description writer must be aware of how critical the voicing of the description can be to conveying meaning. The voice must always be in consonance with the event or image we are describing; and, of course, we make meaning with our voices.
I will leave you with a particular emphasis: there is no good reason why a person with a visual disability must also be culturally disadvantaged. In the United States, the principal constituency for audio description has an unemployment rate of about 70%. I am certain that, with more meaningful access to our culture and its resources, people become more informed, more engaged with society and more engaging individuals and, thus, more employable.
Dr Joel Snyder is known internationally as a pioneer in the field of audio description who has introduced audio description techniques in over 40 states and 63 countries since 1981 and has made hundreds of live events, media projects and museums accessible.
Berk, Judy & Charlson, Kim & Ching, Valerie & Doane, Andrea (2000): Making Theatre Accessible: A Guide to Audio Description in the Performing Arts. Boston: Cultural Access Consortium and the Bay State Council of the Blind.
Ellis, Fay (1991). A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words for Blind and Visually Impaired Persons Too: An Introduction to Audiodescription. New York: American Foundation for the Blind.
Fryer, Louise (2016). An Introduction to Audio Description – A Practical Guide. London & New York: Routledge.
NHIS 2017 = National Health Interview Survey (2017). Center for Disease Control and Prevention, United States of America.
Snyder, Joel (2014). The Visual Made Verbal: A Comprehensive Training Manual and Guide to the History and Applications of Audio Description. Alexandria: American Council of the Blind.