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What is Audio Description for?

Audio Description (AD) means using language to provide visual information, for someone who cannot perceive the visual information directly.
© Royal Holloway, University of London

Audio Description (AD) means using language to provide visual information, for someone who cannot perceive the visual information directly. This is something that we all do in everyday life without thinking about it. For example, if you are meeting someone for the first time in a restaurant, you might describe your appearance in advance to help them identify you when they arrive. You might also describe your surroundings to someone you are speaking to on the phone.

A short history of AD

Audio Description was introduced in the US in the 1980s starting in theatre. Today, it is not only used in theatres, but in museums and galleries, cinemas, TV and film, sport and other special live events such as a presidential inauguration or the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony. While provision has increased, much more Audio Description is needed. For example, not all TV programmes are available with Audio Description and provision varies from country to country. Many live events are also not audio described and therefore remain inaccessible to blind people.

Audio Description works in different ways depending on where it is being delivered. Each setting comes with its own set of requirements and challenges. For film and TV, Audio Description is almost always created post-production. The Audio Describer uses the spaces between the dialogue and sound effects to insert words that help to provide crucial visual information for a blind listener, for example:

Peter raises his fist to Lucy. She backs away.

There often isn’t much time, so the information must be concise and is carefully chosen.

Audio Description in action

In theatres, Audio Description delivered during the performance, the ‘through description,’ is also subject to similar time constraints. It is therefore delivered in a similar format to TV AD – short words and phrases when space allows. Theatre also benefits from an Audio Introduction, where the set, props and characters can be described in more detail. Do you think that Audio Introductions would also be a good idea for a TV drama or a film? More on this later in the course.

In museums and galleries, Audio Description can be delivered either as part of a live tour, or through a recorded guide. In either situation, the audio describer will typically work with the curators to pick out some key artworks or artefacts that best represent the story that an exhibition is trying to tell. They may also prioritise pieces that lend themselves particularly well to description. In this kind of audio description, the describer does not have the same time constraints to work with. They don’t have to squeeze their words into a short gap between other dialogue. However, they still have to take into consideration how long someone will want to spend listening to a description of any one piece. Everyone’s attention is limited.

Describers also spend time thinking about how they can bring the subject to life. They often use multisensory imagery to do this, for example a description of a fire in a painting might include the smell of the smoke, the crackle and hiss of the flames and the warmth it emits, as well as the visual information about the size and colour of the flames. Choosing vivid, evocative language is all part of the skill and craft of creating good audio description. How would you describe your favourite painting to someone who can’t see it? Do you think the act of describing might help you see things in it that you haven’t noticed before?

How does it work?

Whichever setting it is delivered in, the audio describer will have thought long and hard about which words to use, for maximum benefit and impact. Creating vivid mental imagery will mean a more enjoyable and memorable experience for the AD user. Audio Description is something anyone can do. Work at the musée du quai Branly in Paris shows how blind people can be involved in co-creating Audio Descriptions. To do Audio Description well requires careful thought and planning. It’s an art form in itself.

Although Audio Description was designed for blind and partially blind people, there is increasing interest whether it can be beneficial for non-blind people. For example, it may be useful for someone who is watching a film in a second language, or it may help a museum visitor to get more out of their experience by providing a kind of ‘guided looking.’

  1. Can you think of situations where you might enjoy using AD, even if you have not thought of using it before?
  2. Are there situations where AD is not currently provided where it would be useful to you?

To experience AD in action in different settings, you might like to visit the VocalEyes YouTube channel

© Royal Holloway, University of London
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