Audio description is the process of translating visual information into words for people who are blind or have low vision. Typically such description has focused on films, museum exhibitions, images and video on the internet, and live theater. Because it allows people with visual impairments to experience a variety of cultural and educational texts that would otherwise be inaccessible, audio description is a mandated aspect of disability inclusion, although it remains markedly underdeveloped and underutilized in our classrooms and in society in general. Along with increasing awareness of disability, audio description pushes students to practice close reading of visual material, deepen their analysis, and engage in critical discussions around the methodology, standards and values, language, and role of interpretation in a variety of academic disciplines. We outline a few pedagogical interventions that can be customized to different contexts to develop students' writing and critical thinking skills through guided description of visual material.
Audio description is the process of translating visual information into words for people who are blind or have low vision. It was originally developed as an access accommodation in live theater, cinema, television broadcasts and museum collections. As audio description has become more common, particularly with the DVD releases of Hollywood films, some consumers and creators are now questioning its nature and exploring potential uses. Audio description is mainly still understood as an accommodation similar to closed captioning: a neutral, unobtrusive act of translation that moves information from one medium into another. But some of us are intrigued by the ways that audio description is inherently different from methods of accommodation that minimally influence the subjects and discursive practices they work to make accessible.
A traditional understanding of audio description, which arguably remains dominant in most practices today, is provided by Joel Snyder, President of Audio Description Associates. In his recent The Visual Made Verbal, Snyder lays out his fundamentals for the correct way to audio describe something. First, he claims that it is possible and always preferable to describe something objectively. Secondly, such description should be as self-effacing as possible.1 In other words, audio description should be conceived as a disinterested tool of disability accommodation that strives for a rhetorical status that is not only secondary and separate from the object or event being described but also as neutral and non-authorial as subtitles that accompany dialogue on a movie screen. But other scholars and practitioners argue that such objectivity is impossible.2
First of all, one can never put into words every single aspect of any visual. Instead, as Snyder himself notes, "describers must cull from what they see, selecting what is most important to convey."3 This filtering and prioritizing is thus actually an unavoidably subjective perspective that renders the describer into an interlocutor who shares her own interpretations and values. We should therefore not understand audio description as straight translation at all. Description, upon delivery, becomes for the listener a primary component of any film, television show, live performance, or artwork. This is because the act of describing is itself an aesthetic performance that generates its own meanings. For example, the chosen language and qualities of its vocal delivery, such as timbre, prosody, inflection, rhythm, pronunciation, accent, volume, and the perceived gender and age of the describer, all richly flavor a description and shape audience understanding and response to whatever is being described. Furthermore, it is impossible to truly replicate exact meaning and experience across different mediums. Drawing on the universal design principle of "effective communication," John-Patrick Udo and Deborah I. Fels observe that any film director must manipulate cinematic conventions in order to bring about a specific emotional response by the viewer. 4 But different mediums induce different responses. Therefore, they claim, we should see audio description not as providing information per se but rather providing stimuli that is equivalent to but nevertheless fundamentally different than the work's visual components. In sum, audio description must not be considered as an act of pure translation that is one step removed from the original artwork. Description can and should elicit an audience's emotional reactions and produce understandings of the artwork that are in tandem and dialogue with the work's other components.
Once we reject audio description's traditional role as a detached, neutral act of translation that functions only as an enabling accommodation, we may regard its multiple functions and contingencies as fertile ground to be explored and utilized. For example, because audio description is inextricably part of whatever discursive practice it seeks to relate, we can explore the aesthetic, ideological, political and ethical underpinnings of this work of representation and its described object or event. In terms of pedagogy, audio description can be a dynamic tool for facilitating student engagement and analysis. And because inclusion requires that any object of study must be described, audio description offers critical resources across the curriculum.
Below, we offer several suggestions for how audio description can be used in classrooms as one facet of inclusive design. But these description activities are not just ways to provide access for people who are blind and visually impaired; they can be performed when there is no blind person present. Such work can help all students think critically about the visual media they encounter daily both inside and beyond the classroom. As with the familiar wheelchair ramp analogy, an access feature designed for a subset of the disabled population ends up benefitting everyone. As one final note, let us say that the goal of the exercises outlined below is not to compile a list of rules for audio description. This has been already done by practitioners, such as Snyder, who, despite offering an overly rigid perspective, does outline many helpful steps and considerations. But perhaps more importantly, we actually reject the notion of fixing best practices. Instead of codifying rules of what one should or should not do, we challenge normative perceptions and assumptions on the use of audio description and wish to explore strategies that vary depending upon the context of audience, material, and critical and aesthetic goals.
Georgina Kleege has used audio description as a teaching tool for many years. It all began in a fiction writing workshop. During a break, a student was browsing through a pile of story collections and commented on the back cover photograph of Raymond Carver saying, "Wow, I didn't think he'd look like that." Kleege asked what it was that surprised him. He was unable to explain and showed the photo to another student who agreed that Carver's photo did not match his expectations. Soon, other students weighed in, pointing out specific aspects of the photograph, the author's expression, posture and clothing, set against what they had come to believe about the author from his literary aesthetic. There then followed a lengthy discussion of the photograph with what turned out to be very rich analysis of the visual rhetoric of the image, and the convention of authors' photographs in general. Since then, Kleege has used the exercises below in various classes and contexts. Though students initially feel that they are being asked to be helpful to their blind professor, they soon learn that the process of translating visual media into language has a multitude of other values.
Scott Wallin's use of audio description began when he turned to audio description as a theater director in order to make a university production of Martin Crimp's Attempts on her Life more inclusive.5 Although he was initially concerned with how certain disabled students and community members could access the show, he quickly became aware that the act of audio description unavoidably becomes a unique aspect of the performance with its own aesthetic and critical commentary. In the case of Crimp's postdramatic play, which is specifically about the politics of representation, audio description offered an additional way for the production to call attention to its own language, images, and other symbolic actions. In order to make the project more inclusive and analytical, students in a concurrent sound design course were invited to focus on the audio description as their main curriculum for the semester. They subsequently created polyvocal, self-reflexive description that included not only factual information of what spectators might see onstage but also additional soundscapes and commentary that wove extra critical and aesthetic layers into the production. The success of the project spurred Wallin to more recently use audio description in his scholarly courses as a way to facilitate students' close reading and analysis of a variety of visual texts. These description projects also reinforce disability awareness and inclusion into any subject matter that otherwise might not specifically foreground a theme on disability.
As we say above, these exercises can be performed even if there are no instructors or students with visual impairments in the room. However, we include suggestions for how students with visual impairments can participate in each activity. We also advocate that instructors offer at least a brief definition of audio description as an access feature. This can be framed in a way that does not represent people with visual impairments as alien or needy. Audio description can be presented as one of many small interventions that can make the classroom and the culture beyond more inclusive. Lastly, it is important to remember that people with visual impairments live in the same visual culture as everyone else. There's no need to seek a specialized vocabulary or to avoid references to purely visual phenomena such as color, perspective, reflection and so forth. But students should be encouraged to use language that evokes the interdependence of the visual and nonvisual senses, including the tactile and olfactory. For example, they can observe that something looks slick, rough, velvety, etc. Research has shown that, because our senses are significantly interdependent, sighted people consistently draw upon "tactile values" to make sense of their "retinal impressions".6 Therefore we should not consider nonvisual descriptions as mere substitutions for the visual sense. They are essential to experiencing and appreciating the visual.
This is an exercise that can be used in a variety of contexts, as a way to stimulate discussion and develop critical thinking skills regarding visual media. It is a group exercise but can easily generate writing prompts and projects. The exercise compels students to attend to visual media in a deliberate way, slow down their visual reading, attend to detail, and analyze and revise their initial assumptions. They will begin to consider the rhetorical qualities of the work and examine the diversity of reception among fellow observers. In other words, this exercise encourages students to be aware of all that they may take for granted about visual media in the classroom and in the world beyond, and to interrogate what and how images communicate.
The instructor chooses an image related to the course material. This can be anything from a slide of a painting, a news photograph, a screen shot of a website, a book jacket image, etc. The instructor asks for some volunteers who will turn their backs and not look at the image. Note: this is not a simulation exercise. The students who are not looking at the image should not be told to pretend that they are blind. Rather, they should pay close attention to the discussion that follows. The instructor displays the image and asks the class to describe what they see. It's a good idea to begin with a question such as, "Where does your eye go first?" After one or two students have offered some description, the instructor can ask for additional information or clarification, "Where do you see that?" When contradictions arise, the instructor can invite other students to elaborate or point out additional details. Once students are reasonably satisfied with this preliminary description, (and depending on the context of the class) the instructor can ask them to describe the emotional effect of the image, "How does it make you feel? How do you think it's supposed to make you feel?" The instructor can invite students to link these emotional responses to specific aspects of the image.
Now the students who are not looking at the image can turn around and look at it. They can comment on how the actual images differ from what they now see. What aspects of the group's description were particularly helpful or misleading? Seeing the image now, what features do they think are most useful to highlight? This close reading can lead to further analysis of not only the described object but also why it is perceived in the ways that it is.
Note: Blind and visually impaired students can participate in this exercise by helping the instructor question the group.
Five and Five
This is an elaboration of Participatory Description but is ultimately a writing exercise. It can be customized to all sorts of contexts. Since it is a writing exercise, it will direct students' attention first to word choice, and then to the syntax and sequence of the sentences that go into the paragraph. Students will be compelled to think about and discuss which aspects of the image are essential or central versus those that are peripheral or provide context. Follow-up discussion and additional exercises can direct students to use these skills in their analysis of images in textbooks, on the web, and elsewhere.
Divide the class into groups of three or four students. Choose an image or images related to the course content. Everyone can work with the same image, or each group can receive a different image.
- Each student should study the image for a few minutes then compile a list of five nouns that relate to the image. This can be a list of objects or bodies pictured.
- Students compile a list of five adjectives that either describe the objects or people in the image, or refer to their own emotional response to the image.
- Students compare their lists and discuss their choices. What nouns and adjectives recur in every list? Who named elements that others did not, and why? (The question of "why?" is particularly helpful because when students recognize what aspects they chose to emphasize and ignore, they can begin to explore the reasons behind their selections. What does this editorialization tacitly tell us about how an image is seen, understood, and appreciated or dismissed? In other words, whether or not the describer intends it, every description reflects the rhetorical "performance" of the image or event and its reception.) Following this discussion, each group compiles new lists of the best, most accurate or favorite nouns and adjectives.
- Students collaborate to write a paragraph describing the image, which contains the five nouns and adjectives. Depending on the context of the class, this description can be a narrative explaining the image, a journalistic or scientific report detailing features of the image, an aesthetic critique of the image, etc.
Note: Blind and visually impaired students can participate by leading the discussion of the other students' lists, and contributing to the writing of the descriptive paragraph.
YouDescribe is a Project of The Smith-Kettlewell Video Description Research and Development Center, made possible through a grant from the Department of Education. It is an experimental platform designed to crowd source audio description of YouTube videos. While the exercises above will only be heard and read by the students and instructor of the class, the intended audience for YouDescribe is people with visual impairments in the world beyond the classroom. Therefore, this exercise should be framed in a social justice context. For example, the instructor can invite students to list instances in other classes where visual media—PowerPoint presentations, charts, graphs, images, videos—would prevent blind and visually impaired students from full participation. YouDescribe can be understood as one facet of creating a more inclusive society. In addition, since this project will take place over several weeks, possibly even over the whole semester, each phase of the project can offer new opportunities to promote this awareness.
Lastly, this exercise's obvious production-like qualities, such as students recording and listening to their vocal delivery of their description, which they will then edit into the described work's original soundtrack, emphasize audio description's inherently performative nature. In other words, YouDescribe.org brings to the foreground the fact that audio description never simply describes an object in a purely locutionary manner. It also actively constructs that which it describes.
This project is best done over several class periods or several weeks. Students can work independently or in groups of two or three. The instructor can choose a video for everyone or allow each student or group to select a video that relates to the course content. For example, in a class on representations of disability in literature, students could choose a clip from movie versions of texts read in class. A course about theater, dance, or performance art would naturally have videos of its subject matter. The same holds true in social sciences classes that seek to practice a thick description of any filmed social setting or practice. Biology or chemistry students could look for instructional videos that might be assigned to middle school or high school science students or, alternatively, seek out any relevant physical object or process that has been captured on film. The instructor should indicate a minimum and maximum length for the video. Description for a five minute video can take several hours to script, record, edit and revise.
Note: Blind and visually impaired students can participate as a part of a team, scripting, recording and reviewing the description.
The following are guidelines for students for the YouDescribe exercise.
Go to: http://youdescribe.ski.org/rel/.
Create an account and profile (this is free of charge).
Read the guidelines for describers. Note that YouDescribe allows you to add description in two ways. You can either pause the video and insert your description, or you can record a brief, "in-line" description, which will be audible as the video is playing and must be timed so that it doesn't overlap with dialogue, narration or other audible elements. Screen some of the described videos on the site and evaluate the description. How would you do it differently?
Before you get to work on your own project, everyone will do a practice description of a short video that your instructor will choose for the purpose. This is mainly to be sure that you are comfortable with the technology. You should try to use both recording methods: the pause method where you insert the description while the video is paused; and the inline method, where the description is timed to occur in between the dialogue and other sounds while the video is playing. [The instructor can guide the students to particular examples. Some of this discussion can take place in class.]
1. Screen the video you are planning to describe several times and consider the following questions:
- Who is the intended audience for the video—the general public? Adults? Children? Once you have figured out the intended audience for the video, how will this affect the vocabulary, level of detail, and type of information you use in your description?
- How do the visual elements (moving and still images, graphics, titles, subtitles, captions, etc.) and the audio elements (dialogue, voiceover narration, sound effects, music, etc.) work together? In other words, are there instances where the same information is delivered audibly and visually at the same time? Are there occasions where most of the meaning comes from one modality over the other?
- Listen to the video without watching the images and note where some kind of explanation is necessary to understand what's going on. Are their peripheral details that add to the general meaning of the video?
2. Write a script for your description, recognizing that this will change as you go along. Be sure to indicate when you will read any text that appears on screen (titles, captions, subtitles, credits, etc.). Depending on your video, you may want to compose a brief introduction at the beginning of the script. For example: "This is a scene from the movie…. " As you compose your script, consider the following questions:
- When will you pause the video to insert your description, and when will you use the in-line method? Is one technique better for your purposes?
- Think about your tone of voice and speed of delivery. Is it better to maintain a neutral tone and constant rate of delivery throughout, or are there occasions where varying your tone or speed will help enhance meaning?
- If there's humor in the video that depends on a sight gag or other visual element, is it better to announce this in advance of when it happens or after the fact?
[The instructor may want to review these scripts, or form small groups of students to workshop their scripts, before starting the recording process.]
3. Record your description. Once you are satisfied with your description play it for friends and/or classmates. Ask them to listen to the video with your description without watching the visual elements. Are there places where they need additional information? Are there other places where your description is excessive or intrusive? Use this feedback to edit your description. [This review process can be done in class or the instructor can form groups of students to share their projects and give feedback to each other.]
4. Send your instructor the URL to your final project.
5. (Optional): Write a brief self-assessment about your YouDescribe project commenting on the choices you made, difficulties you had, discoveries you found and your overall satisfaction with the final project.
- Joel Snyder, The Visual Made
Verbal: A Comprehensive Training Manual and Guide to the History and
Applications of Audio Description (Arlington: American Council of the Blind,
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- See, for example, Andrew Holland,
"Audio Description in the Theatre and the Visual Arts: Images into Words,"
in Audiovisual Translation: Language Transfer on Screen, edited by G.
Andermann and J. Díaz-Cinta (Basingtoke: Palgrave Mcmillan, 2009),
170-185; Katie O'Reilly, "A Playwright Reflects on 'Alternative
Dramaturgies'," Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre
and Performance 14, no. 1 (2009): 31-35; John-Patrick Udo and Deborah I.
Fels, "The Rogue Poster-Children of Universal Design: Closed Captioning and
Audio Description," Journal of Engineering Design 21, no. 2-3 (2010):
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- Snyder, The Visual Made Verbal, 34.
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- John-Patrick Udo and Deborah I.
Fels, "Universal Design on Stage: Live Audio Description for Theatrical
Performances," Perspectives: Studies in Translatology 18, no. 3 (2010):
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- Attempts on her Life. By Martin
Crimp. Directed by Scott Wallin. Playhouse Theater, University of
California, Berkeley, CA, October 7 – 16, 2011.
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- Holland, "Audio Description in the
Theatre and the Visual Arts," 182.
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