Videos are a popular tool in our quest to share clear and engaging information. Videos show what we are trying to tell through recorded presentations, animation, live action film, and more. We use videos to explore ideas, explain policies, demonstrate new processes, capture proposed projects, and share feedback. Videos that are coupled with audio can make the information more compelling and understandable.
Live performance is another kind of “visual.” Performance connects people in visceral and creative ways to stories, movements, and ideas. And it is often the “visuals” in places like museums, parks, and “sight-seeing” tours, that make our experiences so powerful and memorable.
We expect a lot from our visuals. And yet, what if we can’t access this compelling, powerful information stream? Is this power and possibility lost? Nope. We can use audio description.
What is Audio Description?
Audio description describes to the viewer what is happening on screen or onstage when performers aren’t talking. Audio Description is also called descriptive narration or video description. Same thing, different name. For an example of how this works and why it is so important, check out What is Audio Description? [VIDEO]
Some might imagine that audio description isn’t that important. After all, there’s still plenty of dialogue, right? Well, as this adorable and hilarious example of Audio Description shows, that is not always the case.
Visuals are ubiquitous for a reason. And if they’re everywhere, let’s make them accessible to as many of us as possible.
The Many Uses of Audio Description
The usefulness of audio description goes beyond supporting folks who aren’t seeing the screen. Ever have the TV on while you’re doing chores? Well, audio description benefits you, too. Here's how Audio Description benefits more people than we think.
Audio Description can be found everywhere! Find it:
- In this app for the kiddos and the grown-ups too
- Hiding in your favorite films
- Booming on Broadway [VIDEO]
- On a stroll in the park [VIDEO]
- Making museums marvelous
- Traveling in city tours
Describe it! The Key to Accessible Videos and Performances
Audio description is one of many essential elements of an accessible video, exhibit, or performance. After all, if powerful points are conveyed visually, it’s only fair that as many people as possible have access to this compelling element of the show. And if the visual elements aren’t important, we could leave them out entirely…right?
Audio description is part of equitable content. Equity and accessibility are often perceived as “add-ons” or favors to disabled people. In front of and behind the camera, people with disabilities aren’t “add-ons” to our society, audience, or filmmaking industry—we’re part of the crowd! We need to embrace Audio Description as part of the filmmaking process to move towards information and art that is available to everyone.
In the Beginning: There is Audio Description
Like all efforts towards equity, audio description needs to be part of the planning process of our videos. Then, it is integrated into the budget, and planning for description with the filmmaker allows for description that is both useful and beautiful. After all, shouldn’t Audio Description be as evocative as the images it represents? [PODCAST]
2035 Comprehensive Plan
Here at the City of Portland, we have on-the-books support for building audio description into our plans and budgets. The City’s 2035 Comprehensive Plan, Policy 2.34 calls for accessibility in “community involvement processes involving planning or investment.”
Other parts of the Plan’s Process Design and Evaluation Goals and policies speak to the need for representation, meeting project and culturally-specific needs, accommodation, and tools for effective participation. Audio described videos and events intersects with all of these.
Every City staff has a responsibility to recognize and remove systemic barriers to “fair and just distribution of resources, access and opportunity,” as reflected in the Mission Statement of the Office of Equity and Human Rights.
21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) and Section 508
The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) prescribes specific ways in which audio description must be included in broadcast television. And Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act covers videos coming out of Federal agencies. Accessibility laws tend to expand coverage over time, and it is wise to be ahead of the curve. Speaking of, if you have experience with Audio Description, the FCC is currently taking public comment on the rules networks have to follow regarding description.
Let’s do it! Planning for Audio Description
We are ready to describe our hearts out!
Now, wait…How do we actually DO audio description?
Fear not. As we touched on before, the first step is planning for audio description. And here are some great ideas to get us thinking:
Recognize the many ways audio descriptions will benefit this particular project, now and in the future.
Consider how audio description will fit with other accessibility elements of your video.
Review and update the audio description, captions, and language interpretation items in your budget.
Create a plan to promote your Audio Described video in your community and beyond.
Get a sneak peek of what Audio Description is like for a describer.
Integrate this knowledge into your creation: Where can we add silence or give extra time in our presentation to allow for vibrant description? Where could additional silence enhance the experience for everyone?
- Decide whether you want to hire a professional or do it yourself. More on this coming next!
Calling in the Pros: Why to Hire a Professional Audio Describer
Audio description is complex. Describers need to plan meticulously, create a script that accurately, concisely, and thoughtfully conveys the visual. It is a technical skill bursting with nuance. Word choice changes the meaning, sense, and context of a visual. Describers can evoke a completely different scene through their word choice. If someone is walking, for example, they might stroll, stagger, glide, march, stride, amble, or pace. Finding the right words requires broad and nuanced vocabulary, technical revision, and skill to describe within the actual structure of dialogue, silence, pause, and sound in the film. Not an easy thing to do. This complexity illustrates why audio description is a profession with a specific skillset, training, and certification process..
Good audio description reflects and conveys the context and meanings of the film. In addition to technical descriptive expertise, cultural awareness is essential [PODCAST]. Our perspective, including what we notice and how we describe things, is impacted by our lived experiences and every aspect of our identity, including race, culture, disability, and more.
Describers are no different, and it’s important to be sure that our describers have the lived experience to notice important things and convey them meaningfully. Audio describers who work in the field are more likely to stay up to date on hot topics and emerging practices, including the most respectful ways to reflect identity and culture within description. This is another reason it can be so important to work with the creators all along—important elements can be discussed, and the creators can be sure that the audio description will convey the essential elements of the work.
Ready to hire a describer? Resources abound! The City of Portland Disability Equity Staff have compiled a list of Audio Description service providers and other accessibility resources [PDF] we know about, including this American Council of the Blind resource list of describers nationwide. No one at the City of Portland or the American Council of the Blind is endorsing any Audio Describer or description company—we just want you to be able to find ‘em when you need ‘em!
For the Do-It-Yourselfers Among Us
For folks who are certain they have the technical, cultural, and artistic expertise to create audio descriptions for their content, or who just want a behind-the-scenes look at the audio description process, here are some places to start:
- This Digital.gov article on 508 accessible videos offers three different ways to add Audio Descriptions to a video.
- This hour-long talk, What is Audio Description?covers some excellent foundational information, including what Audio Description is, where it applies, and some of the rules for creating description.
- And this free, downloadable caption creation and audio-description scriptwriting software (CADET) is one tool that anyone can use to up their caption and Audio Description game. (Google will show you others.)
Souvenirs From Our Adventure
Our adventures in Audio Description are coming to a close…for now. Let’s share some of the souvenirs we can take home (and show off!) from this trip:
- Audio description is essential for videos and visual content. Without Audio Description, our creations are inaccessible, inequitable, and exclusionary.
- Audio description enhances the experience for more people. It’s useful, fun, and adds depth and nuance in all kinds of situations and spaces.
- Audio description is complex. It’s technical, artistic, expressive, and cultural.
- Audio description is everywhere. There are heaps of resources, examples, and organizations that can support us on our next audio description adventure.
May you have vivid audio description adventures in the years ahead--bon voyage!