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Last Update: Mar 11, 2021
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Audio Description involves the accessibility of the visual images of theater, television, movies, and other art forms for people who are blind, have low vision, or who are otherwise visually impaired. It is a narration service (provided at no additional charge to the patron) that attempts to describe what the sighted person takes for granted -- those images that a person who is blind or visually impaired formerly could only experience through the whispered asides from a sighted companion.
In theaters, in museums, and accompanying television, film, and video presentations, Audio Description is commentary and narration which guides the listener through the presentation with concise, objective descriptions of new scenes, settings, costumes, body language, and "sight gags," all slipped in between portions of dialogue or songs.
The Federal Government defines Audio Description as follows in its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for updating the US Access Board's Section 508 Standards, Section E103.4, published February 22, 2015:
Audio Description. Narration added to the soundtrack to describe important visual details that cannot be understood from the main soundtrack alone. Audio description is a means to inform individuals who are blind or who have low vision about visual content essential for comprehension. Audio description of video provides information about actions, characters, scene changes, on-screen text, and other visual content. Audio description supplements the regular audio track of a program. Audio description is usually added during existing pauses in dialogue. Audio description is also called “video description” and “descriptive narration”.
The DOJ (Department of Justice) defines Audio Description this way:
§ 36.303 (g)(ii) Auxiliary aids and services.
Audio description means the spoken narration of a movie's key visual elements, such as the action, settings, facial expressions, costumes, and scene changes. Audio description generally requires the use of an audio description device for delivery to a patron.
The FCC defines Video Description this way:
§79.3 (a)(3) Video Description/Audio Description.
The insertion of audio narrated descriptions of a television program's key visual elements into natural pauses between the program's dialogue.
Finally, the DOJ definition in movie theater regulations says the following, though we would debate the 1997 date:
Audio description, which also became available in 1997, enables individuals who are blind or have low vision to hear a spoken narration of a movie's key visual elements, including, but not limited to, the action, settings, facial expressions, costumes, and scene changes. It requires specially trained writers to create a separate script that is then recorded and synchronized with the movie, included on the audio channels in the DCP, and delivered from a server via infrared, FM, or Wi-Fi systems to wireless headsets that patrons wear at their seats.
READ: Audio Description - Where and How. (PDF)
You may download the following audio description symbols for your own use by right-clicking them and selecting the appropriate download option (such as "Save picture as..."). With the exception of the last one, they are all 100 by 100 pixels.
Additional options available (right-click to download):
Credit for the "invention" of audio description in 1981 generally goes to the late Dr Margaret Pfanstiehl and her late husband Cody, although in independent efforts a man named Chet Avery proposed the concept in the late 60s, and Gregory Frazier worked on the idea on the 1970s. In 1990, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded Margaret an Emmy for her "leadership and persistence in the development of television for the visually impaired." In 2009, Margaret received the Excellence in Accessibility Leadership Award at the LEAD Conference at the Kennedy Center for her lifetime commitment and enduring advocacy on behalf of audio description and other forms of information access for the visually impaired community. Over the years, the Pfanstiehls personally trained hundreds of audio describers around the world. Since then, many of those trained describers have gone on to train other audio describers.
Audio Description Solutions has a very nice timeline of the history of audio description, so we won't duplicate it here. Also, Dr. Joel Snyder's book, The Visual Made Verbal: A Comprehensive Training Manual and Guide to the History and Applications of Audio Description covers the history of AD in great detail, and he has offered us this excerpt from his book on the history of AD.
Today, many large cities have organizations with trained audio describers who offer their services for free or fee to local theatre groups and others. Most of the organizations are setup as non-profits. There are also professional audio description organizations (such as WBGH Media Group) who do description primarily for movies. You can find both types of organizations listed on our AD Services web page.
First, you need to find out if there is a local organization which trains and uses audio describers. Consult our AD Services web page. If they offer training, you will probably have to "pass" an audition. They will want to know what your reading voice sounds like. Do you have a strong accent? Do you enunciate well? Do you stumble or stutter? How good is your command of English (or your local language) and your vocabulary? Remember: an audio describer's voice should never be distracting from the performance being described, so the organization will be looking for people with pleasant voices and good command of the language.
Note: for professional production of description in media, the audio describer writes the AD script, while a professional voice-over artist typically voices it; thus the issue of a describer's voice characteristics may not be relevant.
And by the way, the fundamental rule of audio description is, "Say what you see." This is not a job where your ad-libs or your interpretation of what you see is appropriate!
Audio Description Training Opportunities
Want to become a describer or brush up on skills? See our Training/Education page.
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Please see the links at the top of this page for additional reference material on audio description!