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Audio Description Expertise: How to Communicate Visual Information to the Blind

Meet Our Expert: Celia Hughes

picture of Celia HughesCelia was introduced to Audio Description (AD) in 1996 when a friend with experience in the field from Washington DC moved to Austin and began an organization called VSA Texas, a resource and training organization for inclusive arts. When her friend moved back to DC, Celia volunteered to take over the operations of the organization as their Director in Austin. The volunteer position, organizing training sessions, grew to more of a full-time career around 2001-2001 when Celia began learning the art of Audio Description herself.

Celia is now also part of the AST operations team, offering her audio description expertise to create better accessibility services for educational content and more. We interviewed Celia to get an expert’s opinion on the importance of quality Audio Description.

What is Audio Description?

Audio Description, as Celia simply puts it, is, “the verbal translation of visual information”. The visual cues include information relevant to communicating the information and emotion presented by the video or movie.

The Skill to Produce High-Quality Audio Description

Just describing the images on screen is not enough. The thousands of words each image is worth need to be condensed so that just the right amount of information is selected to accurately portray the meaning. Each individual interprets and reacts to visual information differently. This is why it takes a thoroughly trained Audio Describer to produce high quality descriptions. Describers also need to learn the natural pauses in the audio content and insert their descriptions precisely.

What it Takes to Become an Expert Audio Describer

  1. Natural skill – AD is an art that takes a certain level of natural skill
  2. Extensive Training – A new describer must train with a blind individual present in order to fully understand what information is most critical to that individual.
  3. Discernment – A person trained in AD will know the difference between information they personally would pick up and information that needs to be communicated to someone who is blind.
  4. Command of language – Because of the limited time an audio describer is able to speak, a strong command of language allows describers to have an extensive vocabulary, use metaphors, and make clever word choices that will convey as much meaning as possible in as few words as possible.

Selecting the Right Information 

We live in a highly visual world and as a sighted person, we take in so much information we don’t even consciously think about. The brain can decide what is and is not important in an instant. Not all visual information can be described, so the describer must decipher which info is critical to comprehension and enjoyment.

Evoking Emotion

Specifically, in videos such as movies or other creative content, it is important that emotion is portrayed. The describer must be careful not to describe the emotion the listener should feel, but instead describe the correct visual cues that will allow the listener to interpret it themselves.

Example: Hear how sound and description can evoke emotion, watch the described trailer of The Lion King – don’t watch, try just listening: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jT5AsjzgIC4

Example: Why Quality Audio Description is Indeed More Effective

Blind individuals have been listening to the radio and going to movies since the beginning of modern day media. Since AD is relatively new and not as widespread as captioning, many blind people have not realized its value.

A bad describer will insert their own opinions of the film while a good one will give you the info you need to make your own interpretation. Celia used the example of Tommy Edison, a YouTuber and blind film critic with a great sense of humor, as someone who has experience with both good and bad quality audio description. Tommy rates movies based on their accessibility and how understandable they are to the blind. Tommy has been skeptical of audio description because he’s experienced bad quality descriptions, which step over the existing audio and describe irrelevant information. He has, however, experienced good quality audio description, which allowed him to “watch” his first silent film. For him, if the descriptions aren’t good, he’d rather have the movie without them.

An example Celia used to explain the difference audio description can make with levels of comprehension, is the baseball movie Field of Dreams. If you’ve seen it, you might remember that the ending is almost entirely silent. For one blind individual, Celia said, the movie had a sad ending. However, once he was able to listen with audio description, he realized that the ending was more inspirational and hopeful than sad because he learned about the long stream of cars that were shown driving towards the field.

The Process of Writing Audio Description

Audio Describers will generally watch the entire video first in the mindset that they need to communicate what is happening visually in the plot or context. This is because sometimes a scene may portray something visually that does not need to be described because it is already described in the audio in a following scene. Sometimes it also takes research for the describers to know the correct terms to use that will best communicate information.

 Sometimes sounds also need to be described to let the listener know how they are being made.

Educational Content and the Smart Player

Educational content requires a slightly different approach. During a movie, play or other types of creative visual content, the program cannot be stopped to insert the description. In an educational setting, content previously recorded can be paused in order to allow appropriate time to describe important visual information to the student. Still, the video cannot be paused for too long, so the same skill of discernment is required. Another difference is the information that needs to be communicated; in an educational setting the student may be tested on the content, so it is most important to describe visual information such as graphs, written terms, and diagrams in a way that allows a blind student to receive equally effective communication, as compared with the other students.

Awareness and Compliance

Where does audio description stand today? Audio description is still a relatively new advancement in accessibility technology. However, as those with disabilities more frequently are expecting and receiving this type of accommodation, especially in school and university settings, the awareness and demand are growing. The Americans Council of the Blind recently launched a project to promote audio description, and they have already had an influence on laws published by the FCC and other government organizations. As we have seen with captioning, it is important to stay ahead of the curve and provide the most advanced accessibility possible, nudging everyone in your organization in the right direction, to ensure compliance before you receive a complaint or investigation notice from the Office of Civil Rights or Department of Justice.

Learn more about our Audio Description services.

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