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Why Every University Needs Audio Description

By: Sarah Doar
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For educational institutions, there has been an increased pressure from students, faculty and staff to provide multiple streams of access for people with vision loss. Vision impairment is one of the top 10 disabilities in the US and more than 3 million American adults suffer from some form of potentially blinding eye disease. Additionally, 6.8% of US children younger than 18 years have a diagnosed eye and vision condition. Therefore, the time to enlist solutions for them to thrive and be able to have an equitable college experience is now.

Universities looking to include these individuals and create more opportunities for them to succeed can turn to the exciting solution of audio description. It offers more equitable access to learning materials like videos being shown in classes, as well as community or campus events. 

Making virtual media accessible is not just a matter of providing captioning anymore.

In the same way that individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing are entitled to closed captioning, viewers who are low vision have the same right to audio description. Institutions have a responsibility to their students to provide equitable opportunity for low vision individuals to learn side by side with their peers.

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Lindsay Tulloss, a Customer Success Manager at AST, shared how in working regularly with institutions across the globe on their accessibility efforts, audio description is being discussed more often. However, she noted that much more needs to be done to have audio description embraced in a way that levels the playing field for blind and low vision learners.

“I compare audio description now, to where captioning was 10 years ago,” she said. “Captioning 10 years ago was rare to see. It wasn’t something you could turn on and off, and you might only have it available sometimes. Captioning wasn’t widely used, but it was needed.”

“Then, people began to make their voices heard and actually ask for the accommodations that they needed, which brought captioning to where it is today. Now, any place that you go – the airport, out to dinner – if the TV’s are on, everything’s captioned. People come to expect captioning to be available, whether it’s their streaming service or online classroom, they just expect captioning to be there. I’m starting to see audio description heading in that direction.”

To best serve individuals who need audio description, it is important to understand the function of AD, as well as the differences between the two kinds in order to implement audio description effectively to support the learning experience of blind or low vision students.

What is audio description?

Audio description provides additional audio narration for video. AD can be added to multiple forms of video whether it be educational, TV or film. The audio describes key visual elements that are shown, but often not spoken out loud. This could be physical descriptions of characters, a play-by-play of on-screen action, or even details of facial expressions. This narration is incorporated seamlessly into the video’s natural pauses to provide clear, concise and objective language to describe what was shown. 

AD in online videos often features an interactive player, such as AST’s Smart Player, which has a user-selectable option. For TV, it is typically provided through the Secondary Audio Programming (SAP) channel that can be switched on/off via a remote control. The availability of accessible video players with display capabilities for audio description outputs can be limited.

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While audio description greatly increases video accessibility, it is worth noting that the video players themselves must also be accessible. One of the most important features to consider when choosing a video player is if it’s WCAG 2 compliant. AST’s Smart Player has an audio description display capability to display both captions and audio descriptions simultaneously, while also meeting the Web Content Accessibility Guideline standards.

Understanding the different types of audio description

There are two types of audio description – standard and extended. The type of audio description you use often depends on the type and length of the video content. If classroom video content contains a lot of pauses then standard AD can easily be integrated. However, if there is video that doesn’t contain many natural pauses, plus a lot of relevant visual information, then extended AD is the better choice.

Standard audio description allows snippets of narration to be interspersed within the natural pauses in dialogue of the original content. The descriptions must be kept concise enough to fit into the allotted time in order to ensure that they enhance the original piece rather than distract from it. Having overlapping audio tracks would make it very difficult to understand. This type of description works well for content with frequent pauses or a small amount of detail that needs to be described.

Contrary to standard audio description, extended audio description is not constrained to the natural pauses of a video. Extended AD allows you to pause the original source content to make room for extended description, as needed. When utilizing extended audio description the video and description begin playing simultaneously. Then, the source video pauses temporarily, while the description continues. After that portion of the description is complete, the video resumes playing again. Extended audio description is the type of audio description most recommended for educational content, in both video platforms and players. 

In the case of a recorded classroom lecture, extended audio description would pause the video at relevant points in order to describe the visuals. For example, a professor may be speaking while drawing on the board. Regardless of how rapidly he is speaking or drawing, the video will pause in between problems to provide extended audio description of the professor’s drawings and gestures and then resume afterwards from the same point. In many instances, AD, especially extended AD, allows for the integration of blind or low vision students into a typical learning environment.

Using audio description to improve university accessibility

Of the 12 million adults who are visually impaired in the US, approximately 15% obtained bachelor’s degrees from an accredited higher learning institution. With tools like audio description leading the way in making universities more accessible, there is every reason for students who are visually impaired to be enrolled in mainstream schools.

Students have the right to choose the best school for them based on course offerings and degree opportunities. They should not have to settle for enrolling at a college simply based on the fact that the place happens to be equipped with the necessary accessibility resources. With today’s technology, making learning materials accessible for all students is an attainable goal.

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Integrating students who are visually impaired into a college learning environment can be done by making slight modifications. It shouldn’t feel overwhelming to address course delivery to support students with disabilities to learn and receive instructions effectively. Audio description is one significant addition institutions can invest in now to make video content inclusive for students navigating vision loss.

“There’s a huge movement across the country for civil rights and I think learning accommodations are a part of that,” says Lindsay Tulloss. “Students are saying, ‘I have a right to ask for this’, and so I think institutions are trying to get ahead by adding audio description to their videos.”

AST can help institutional leaders explore how to start describing videos, eBooks or any other virtual media with audio description. For example, audio description can be applied to videos shown in a biology course that showcase DNA visually, but also provide a visual description so that  people who are blind are able to comprehend. 

Promoting inclusivity in higher education

As more universities turn their attention to how to make learning inclusive and accessible for all, audio description is more relevant than ever.

Audio description has largely become part of this movement for greater inclusivity in university learning. By adding AD to new or existing virtual media, universities can anticipate student needs before assistance is sought out and attract more students to enroll.

AST is partnering with universities globally, providing them with 24/7 dedicated support and trusted audio description and additional solutions like post-production captioning and real time captioning built for education’s needs. These tools support the accuracy requirements outlined by the ADA. Contact us to learn more about our solutions and how audio description can make your university more inclusive.