AUDIO DESCRIPTION WHAT IS IT?
Audio Description (AD) makes the visual images of theater, media and visual art accessible for people who are blind or have low vision. Using words that are succinct, vivid, and imaginative (via the use of similes or comparisons), describers convey the visual image that is either inaccessible or only partially accessible to a segment of the population. In addition, the visual image is often not fully realized by people who see, but who may not observe. Description may also benefit people who prefer to acquire information primarily by auditory means and those who are limited—by proximity or technology, for instance—to accessing audio of an event or production. While description was developed for people who are blind or visually impaired, many others may also benefit from description’s concise, objective “translation” of the key visual components of various art genres and social settings.
I believe that Audio Description is a literary art form in itself. It’s a type of poetry—a haiku. It provides a verbal version of the visual—the visual is made verbal, aural (he points to his ear) and oral (he points to his mouth). A haiku because describers must use as few words as possible to convey that visual image for the benefit of people—all people, including children—who are blind or have low vision. Audio Description is an “Assistive Technology”; it is meant to enhance, not replace the user’s own powers of observation.
In some ways, for an access technique/form of audiovisual translation that is over 30 years old as a formal practice or area of inquiry, a great deal of progress has been made. Most notably in the U.K., where a mandate exists (albeit relatively modest) for description on broadcast television, significant strides have been made in developing the state of this art, for media, in performance (including sporting engagements), and for exhibitions.
But as far as the actual practice of audio description, other countries fall far behind, including my own United States, the birthplace of the technique. It is noteworthy too that practically all research in this field originates in Europe where description is considered a form of translation and studied as such. An informal survey of American graduate programs reveals no “homes” for advance study of audio description.
Bernd Benecke (2004: 78) notes that audio description is “as old as sighted people telling visually impaired people about visual events happening in the world around them.” Pujol and Orero (2007: 49-60) add an interesting twist on that perspective: “While it is true that research in the field has just started, with no PhD to date, we believe we should take into consideration the many studies and range of experience which already exists, since this may shed some light on the topic and further the insight of new research.” They cite “ekphrasis” (or “ecphrasis”), “ a literary figure that provides the graphic and often dramatic description of a painting, a relief or other work of art. This rhetorical phenomenon is common in the epic poems of Ancient Greece.” In Michael Dirda’s Washington Post review of Leonard Barkan’s Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures, he presents Barkan’s definition of ekphrasis as “the verbal presentation of an object of a visual object inside a literary work.” Indeed Dirda notes that Barkan’s title derives “from an ancient saying credited to Simonides of Ceos: ‘Painting is mute poetry, poetry a speaking picture.’” Dirda continues: “Think of Homer’s description of the elaborately tooled shield of Achilles in The Iliad.” A portion of Homer’s work follows:
“Then first he form’d the immense and solid shield; Rich various artifice emblazed the field; Its utmost verge a threefold circle bound; A silver chain suspends the massy round; Five ample plates the broad expanse compose, And godlike labours on the surface rose. There shone the image of the master-mind: There earth, there heaven, there ocean he design’d; The unwearied sun, the moon completely round; The starry lights that heaven’s high convex crown’d; The Pleiads, Hyads, with the northern team; And great Orion’s more refulgent beam; To which, around the axle of the sky, The Bear, revolving, points his golden eye, Still shines exalted on the ethereal plain, Nor bathes his blazing forehead in the main.”
I have noted that audio description as a formal process of translation and accessibility is just over 30 years old-if one counts as its genesis in the literature as the landmark 1978 Masters thesis by Gregory T. Frazier, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman: An All-audio Adaptation of the Teleplay for the Blind and Visually Handicapped.
Since that time, the vast bulk of serious study of audio description has been in Europe as a form of “audiovisual translation.” The field of study derives from/relates to a focus on subtitles for video and film. With the majority of commercial media originating in the United States of America, in English, access to this work for speakers of other languages happens via subtitling or dubbing. Audio description represents another kind of “translation” in media—from visual images to words for the benefit of those who have no access to the visual image. Unlike most “light dependent” people, people who are blind or have low vision speak a language that is not dependent on the visual. Consequently, audio description has been embraced as a new field of study in academic programs that encourage the exploration of audio—visual translation.
So audio description can no longer be considered in its infancy—perhaps it is in its adolescence, with new techniques on the horizon, aesthetic innovations incorporating description within the material it supports, and broadened access to new media and varied settings for increased numbers of people who are blind or have low vision.
AUDIO DESCRIPTION WHO’S IT FOR: ATTITUDES ARE THE REAL DISABILITY
Who Are “The Blind”? They are not “the blind.” They are individuals—housewives, scientists, artists, business people. They are you—or me—at some point in our lives.
The American Foundation for the Blind reports that 21.2 million Americans have vision loss; in 2007, Nigeria’s Minister of Health reported that the number of people who are blind worldwide is likely to increase to 75 million by the year 2020. While description was developed for people who are blind or visually impaired, many others may also benefit from description’s concise, objective “translation” of the key visual components of various art genres and social settings. Audio Description is an “assistive technology”; it is meant to enhance, not replace the user’s own powers of observation.
Disability is indiscriminate and universal—and the responsibility of us all. It demands attention from us regardless of race, age, size, gender. “The blind” don’t exist. They are unique individuals living with some degree of vision loss as the result of a wide range of causes. Most users of description are not totally blind; indeed, only 1-2% of the legally blind are congenitally blind (blind from birth); others are adventitiously blind or developed total blindness later in life. Most at one point had all or some of their sight and now they may
have only peripheral vision, they may see only shapes, light and dark, colors, movement, shadows, blurs, or “blobs”—or have “tunnel vision.” Only 10% know Braille.
A true story: a blind fellow visiting a museum with some friends was once asked, “Excuse me, but what you doing in a museum? You can’t see any of the exhibits.” His response? “I’m here for the same reason anyone goes to a museum. I want to learn, I want to know and be a part of our culture.” His inability to see shouldn’t deny him access to our culture and I believe it the responsibility of our arts institutions to be as inclusive as possible. Cultural access is everyone’s right. There simply is no good reason why a person with a particular disability must also be culturally disadvantaged.
The person that confronted that gentleman in the museum—along with too many organization staff members have a serious disability: they’re “attitude impaired.” Indeed, I often wear a pin that reads “Attitudes are the Real Disability.” We all need to understand that notion, particularly when encountering someone who perceives the world in a different way. Being blind is less about the loss of sight and more about perceiving the world in new ways-ways which are not dependent on light. And they are people with a wide range of abilities: there are blind skiers, blind photographers, blind visual artists, blind bowlers, blind attorneys, blind restaurateurs (see a review of “Blindekuh” or “The Blind Cow”—Note: I’ve dined at The Blind Cow in Zurich and the food is… “indescribably” delicious!)… and the list could go on.
In June 2013, a “day of solidarity with the blind and visually impaired community” was established in Israel (June 6). A blogger for Haaretz, Neta Alexander, writes of a blind marathon runner she interviewed. She asked him what other hobbies he has, besides running. She was surprised by his response: “I love the cinemas. I go almost every week…. I go with a companion and he fills in details that are very valuable to understanding the plot…. But I especially love the thrill that I feel from the audience. When I’m with a lot of people, I actually can feel when they are going to laugh or when they react with excitement. I experience the film through their feelings.
Ms. Alexander continues: “In one event on the Israeli “Blind Day,” the Tel Aviv Cinematheque will allow the audience to experience a movie as blind people experience it: the film Proof will be screened and sighted people will get a blindfold and headphones through which they will hear not only the sounds of the film, but also description of what is happening on the screen…. If you ask yourself why the hell you should try and experience a movie for an hour and a half without seeing it, the answer is quite simple: the event is not only a gesture of solidarity with the blind, but can extend our sensory perception of the world which consists of—unfortunately— almost total reliance on the sense of sight. In fact, the digital culture we live in is so visual, it is hard for us to imagine we could ever live differently.
But in early societies, for example, there were communities that were based on oral tradition; traditions passed orally from generation to generation. Humans relied on memory, learned to memorize complex mythologies with dozens of characters and numerous events. Before the invention of writing our ears were as dominant as our eyes, as were the senses of smell and taste, which allowed people to identify hazards…. Life in a visually oriented society completely changed the way our brain works: from the loss of the ability to memorize phone numbers (not to mention texts, songs and speeches) to our virtual addiction to visual stimuli.”
Avraham Rabby (born blind) writing in The Jerusalem Post of Israel’s day of solidarity with the blind and visually impaired community, provides an important alternative perspective: “On that day, you will be able to participate in numerous events supposedly aimed at raising your awareness of the nature of blindness, of how blind people live their daily lives and of what problems they face…. At the Knesset, some Knesset members will be called upon to blindfold themselves and compete against a team of blind athletes in a game of ‘goal-ball,’ a sport specially designed for the blind. At other venues, people will be invited to perform everyday tasks, such as eating at a restaurant and shopping for groceries, with their eyes closed or in a totally dark environment.”
But Rabby has concerns with this approach to “awareness”: “All the blindness-simulation exercises on the Blind Day schedule are gimmicks which assume that the principal problem facing blind people is the actual loss of sight…. [But] the Knesset members who will blindfold themselves and attempt to play goal-ball will never function as practiced blind people do. As soon as they don their blindfolds, they will be virtually paralyzed by fear for their physical safety and exasperated by their inability to perform the simplest of tasks as they did with their eyes open. They will be totally disoriented on the goal-ball court while their blind opponents run rings around them, and their self-confidence will be at zero. As a result, rather than raising the Knesset members’ awareness of the true nature of blindness, this experience will reinforce whatever stereotypes and prejudicial notions they may have had about the helplessness and incapacity of blind people.”
Unfortunately, what will remain is the real problem facing blind people: “not so much the physical loss of sight but the low expectations the sighted society has of us and the discrimination we constantly encounter.”
Rabby’s conclusion is that “Blind Day should be used… to compel the Ministry of Education to provide [students] with Braille and recorded textbooks …to highlight the fact that blind 18-year-olds [are exempt] from mandatory military service, even though… if they insist on serving, only permits them to enlist as volunteers… to protest [the] failure to install voice announcements of bus numbers and routes on all buses and at all bus stops… to [convince people] of the abilities of the blind [with] live demonstrations of blind people at work, competently performing a wide variety of jobs, including jobs with high-level professional and managerial responsibility.”
Let’s turn it all on its head: can sight be a “liability”? In his book, An Anthropologist On Mars, Oliver Sacks’ fourth tale, “To See and Not See,” is about partially restored sight and how it was not a blessing. This story illustrates how sight is learned from infancy and is largely a constructive and interpretive function of the brain. A man, aged 55, has been blind since age 5. He regains partial vision but is no longer able to walk: his distance perception is skewed and he stumbles over shadows. Eventually, gradually, his vision deteriorates again. This story, based on the experience of one of Sacks’ patients, lets us see how the world of the sightless can be rich and fulfilling beyond our imagination.
In the same vein, Brian Friel’s play Molly Sweeney depicts a woman who is blind and is presented with the possibility of a cure. Her husband, Frank Sweeney, cries “If there is chance, any chance, that she might be able to see, we must take, mustn’t we? She has nothing to lose, has she? What has she to lose? Nothing! Nothing!” The play makes evident that Frank Sweeney devalues the life his wife has led as a blind woman. The program notes for the Arena Stage production of the play suggest that “He, like most people, think the blind have been cheated out of living life to the fullest, and at best, can only be pitied…. studies indicate that the sighted know almost nothing about the blind. They are frequently astonished when the blind demonstrate any level of competence…. They cannot comprehend that the blind may be perfectly content to remain so…. The more informed are likely to treat a blind person with more respect.”
Still, many people have never met a person who is blind. He/she is A PERSON first-with low or no vision and a wide range of abilities. We must strive to “See the person not the disability.”
AUDIO DESCRIPTION WHAT’S NEXT?
What are the specific areas where audio description holds promise for future development?
“Self-description”: No, I’m not speaking of describing one’s self! In schools, including higher education, in employment settings, and at conferences, description is most efficiently provided by the speaker making a presentation. “Describe as you go” is the key, not necessarily assuming that all in an audience have easy access to the images being presented. It’s common for speakers to ask: “Can everyone hear me?” But can everyone see the images in your PowerPoint or in a short video? At best, a presentation without description is insensitive to an audience’s needs; at worst, the situation results in an embarrassing episode similar to that which occurred at VISION 2008 in Canada cited earlier.
Video Description Research and Development Center (VDRDC) Supported by the U.S. Department of Education, the VDRDC “investigates innovative technologies and techniques for making online video more accessible to blind and visually-impaired students and consumers. Through collaboration with a broad array of partners and stakeholders in the Description Leadership Network we are developing advanced video annotation methods for use in a wide variety of educational settings, as well as helping educators and other description providers make better use of the tools already available.” I served as a member of the Description Leadership Network.
A key project of the VDRDC is its Descriptive Video Exchange (DVX), a set of web-based tools that enable anyone to create, access, and share video description content from anywhere video is being streamed or played— also dubbed “You Describe.” While I am an unwavering advocate for the highest quality in description, a mechanism for encouraging all people to become familiar with description by doing description can only help build awareness of a relatively new access technique.
Visibility: As I craft these notes, I pause to follow the television coverage of the 2013 Memorial Day ceremonies in the United States. An army sergeant performed a stirring rendition of “America, The Beautiful”—accompanied by a sign language interpreter. All people see the interpreter and are reminded of the importance of making the words being sung accessible to people who are deaf. And yet my own description of the presidential inaugurations for ABC-TV in 2009 and 2013 was heard only by those who accessed a separate audio channel. Similarly, at a performing arts event, description is accessed only by those who desire the service.
And that’s how it should be. But the result is that audio description is “invisible.” I believe that to a great extent the future of audio description is tied to its visibility among consumers as well as the general public. We need to create more effective PSAs (Public Service Announcements), perhaps in association with the public sector—and it is critical that advocates for audio description collaborate with other constituencies— people who are deaf, people with learning disabilities, people learning English, all people who can benefit from the development of audio description.
Information: As a member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Video Programming Accessibility Advisory Committee (VPAAC), I advocated for the widest possible distribution of information regarding: a) what description is available on public broadcast television; and b) how to access the AD feeds. The committee’s final report notes “the importance of making widely available information about what programs are video described …(that) entities required to provide described programming… must also provide information about described programs on their websites, provide this information to programming information distributors such as Rovi and Tribune Media Services, and consider alternative ways of ensuring that blind and visually impaired consumers have access to such information…(that) networks should provide information on their web sites indicating which programs they are airing with video description. To ensure that the information can be accessed, it must be provided in a manner that is accessible to and usable by individuals who are blind or have a visual impairment (and that) information regarding programs with video description be made accessible, usable, and searchable online and through other means such as by telephone using an automated Integrated Voice Response (IVR) system.”
In addition, the American Council of the Blind (through its Audio Description Project), the Royal National Institute of Blind People, and Canada’s Accessible Media, Inc. maintain excellent repositories of information on audio description in a wide range of genres:
Quality: It is my hope that this volume will contribute to more audio description world-wide and audio description that is of the highest quality. Guidelines have been established in a number of countries—and this volume is informed by many of them—but I believe that a “guideline of guidelines” developed with significant input from and endorsement by users of description could be an important advance for the field. Rick Boggs, of The Accessible Planet and Audio Eyes, is a long-time advocate of more—and more informed—inclusion of description consumers in the development of guidelines and, as importantly, the involvement of description consumers in the production of audio description—as consultants, audio editors, voice talent and in other capacities. He offers workshops focused on audio description skills for consumers of audio description.
It is my hope that in the coming years a national certification program can be established for the review of individuals and companies who offer audio description professionally and trainers of describers, similar, perhaps, to the program established in the U.K. for describers in the performing arts.
New Developments: Two prospects on the horizon warrant special note:
Ryerson University—Deborah Fels, PhD: When I coordinated funding for multidisciplinary categories at the National Endowment for the Arts, I developed guidelines language that invited applications for funding of access projects that represented aesthetic innovation. In the same vein, Deborah Fels of Ryerson University in Canada posits that “Accessibility can be entertaining.” The Ryerson website notes that “Video description and closed captioning (can be) an integral part of the creative process.” Quoting Dr. Fels, it goes on: “Normally this work is done by a third party after the film is complete. We are working with the creative team to write these tracks at the same time they put together the show. Artists are very happy to do this. They love their work, and they understand what’s important.” For instance, in every episode of CTV’s Odd Job Jack, an animated production from Smiley Guy Studios, there is an extra track narrated by one of the characters. (emphasis added)
Parlamo: Parlamo is a patented Smartphone application that will deliver simultaneous, synchronized foreign language audio and audio description tracks (in English or Spanish) at any movie theater or at home. It targets hundreds of millions of moviegoers worldwide who are not fluent in the local language and exclude movies from their leisure activities. It is designed to run on hundreds of millions of devices operating under iOS (iPhone, iPad and Touch), Android and Microsoft Phone platforms. The app downloads an encrypted language or audio description soundtrack to the device; the app is free with users paying a small fee per downloaded language soundtrack (audio description soundtracks are provided at no cost).
I mentioned earlier that in the United States there are over 20 million individuals who are either blind or have trouble seeing even with correction—that amounts to almost 8% of our population. Whether one speaks of public or commercial broadcasting, why would a broadcaster—or any institution—not wish to tap such a significant and underserved portion of the population. There is simply a lack of awareness of the need and a misunderstanding of the public benefit that could result from reaching out to this population, not to mention the financial benefit that might be gleaned from this untapped market.
Here 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—thus, more employable. With a focus on people’s abilities, we will come much closer to greater inclusion and total access.
by Joel Snyder