Veronica With Four Eyes

Fast Facts About Audio Description

In 2018, I launched a campaign to add a content warning for strobe and flashing lights in the movie Incredibles 2, after I got sick while watching the movie with my family in theaters. While talking to various media outlets about my experience, I mentioned how audio description had helped me follow along with the movie, and people almost always responded by asking “what is audio description?” or by asking what captioning had to do with strobe lights. Audio description is different from captioning, which has stricter legal requirements, but is still an incredible asset for helping people with vision loss to enjoy visual media. Here are some fast facts about audio description and how is used by blind and low vision viewers.

Who uses audio description?

Audio description is most commonly used by people with visual impairments, inclusive of blind and low vision, though can also be used by people who are photosensitive or that experience adverse effects from strobe/flashing lights, or people who are learning a new language. Audio description helps to answer questions as to what is going on, and why, providing important contextual information.

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What is audio description?

Audio description, sometimes referred to as descriptive audio or described video, is an additional narrator track that provides visual information for people who otherwise would not be able to see it. Audio description may be provided live by a narrator or pre-recorded ahead of time using either a professional narrator or synthesized voice. At live events such as theater, audio description is typically played on an assistive listening device (ALD), which is about the size of a cell phone, or on an external application- GalaPro is an example of an application that is used in live theater.

For streaming or online content, open audio description is used, meaning that the audio description automatically plays and does not require a special device.

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Where can it be found?

Audio description can be found in a variety of different settings, including but not limited to:

  • Movie theaters
  • Plays
  • Performing arts events
  • Museums
  • Theme parks/amusement parks
  • Sporting events
  • National parks
  • Streaming video and live TV

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When does it help?

  • During natural pauses in dialogue, listeners receive a description of the setting. There are also descriptions of facial expressions and movement, as well as warnings about explosions and flashing lights. This helped me a lot when I watched Incredibles 2, a movie that features strobe lights as a major plot point
  • At plays, descriptions include movement, sets, and costumes, as well as information about the theater itself
  • For performing arts events, choreography, costumes, and facial expressions are commonly described
  • When visiting museums, details about signs and individual artifacts/display items are read so that listeners can visualize each item
  • At theme parks, there are descriptions of ride effects, park shows, and scenic areas
  • For sporting events, the game is narrated by a sports announcer that gives details about the movement of the ball and the players on each team.

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Why doesn’t it cost money to use?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Title III, people with disabilities legally cannot be charged more for requiring accommodations in public places. However, it is legal to charge a deposit or ask for an ID to serve as collateral for returning the audio description device. The most expensive deposit I have ever seen for a device is $25, which was refunded after I returned the device.

Who produces audio description?

  • For movies and TV shows, a third party agency is typically contracted to write, perform, and mix audio description for streaming and live TV. WGBH’s Descriptive Video Services is an example of an audio description provider.
  • Plays and performing arts events often have live audio description services, where a narrator will watch the play and describe what is going on as it happens, or read from a script
  • Sometimes, plays and performing arts events use pre-recorded audio description which is done by a member of the production team
  • Museum volunteers or staff members record information about exhibits, or may hire a third party company to produce audio description
  • Theme parks will have a third party company or staff member describe park shows or scenic areas, as well as describe maps
  • Sportscasters create descriptions for sporting events

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What are some examples of descriptions?

Some examples of audio description include:

  • She enters a room with purple walls and clutter all over the floor, and walks a few steps, not noticing the backpack in front of her. She trips and falls down, her hand leaving a mark on the wall
  • The curtains open and there is a crowd of people all looking at the ceiling as dark clouds move overhead
  • The mime moves their left arm while extending their hands slightly, as if they are inside a box
  • This painting features shades of bright blue and lime green, with a yellow dot in the center
  • The ride moves forward as we enter a dark room with dark clouds. Flashes of lightning illuminate the sky
  • Player number 3 hits the ball out of the park

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When can I request a device?

Guests can request audio description devices at the Guest Services or Accessibility kiosk at the venue, or call ahead of time to request an audio description device. It’s important to make sure the device is configured for audio description and not closed captioning, and this should be checked before leaving the kiosk, since guests cannot configure audio description devices on their own.

Where can I find an audio description logo?

In the United States, a standard logo for audio description was created that is placed next to movie and event titles that feature the service, near the closed captioning logo. It can also be on the accessibility information page of websites, or on signs at events. Some places may require advance notice to provide descriptive audio services but again, it’s not legal for users to be charged for receiving them.

Another source for finding audio described content is the American Council for the Blind’s Audio Description Project, which I have linked to below.

The audio description logo has the letters AD and three parenthesis

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Why is audio description important?

Audio description is the reason I am able to safely watch movies, TV shows, plays, and other live events as a person with low vision and photosensitivity, since I can get advance warnings about strobe/flashing lights and follow along without having to ask multiple questions. The availability of audio description is the number one thing I look for when considering what to watch, and I am grateful to see it is becoming more and more prevalent.

More posts on audio description from Veronica With Four Eyes

What is audio description? Answering the who, what, when, where, and why all about how audio description helps people with vision loss (low vision/blind)