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?
by Joel Snyder