What is Audio Description
Audio Description, a narration service that helps people with visual impairments enjoy movies, has been around for decades. But recently, the availability of audio description has increased exponentially thanks to the advocacy efforts of many disability organizations.
An initiative of the American Council of the Blind (ACB), the Audio Description Project is defined as follows on their website: “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.”
A vision rehabilitation specialist, I was very intrigued when I learned that my neighborhood Cinemark theater was showing first-run movies with audio description and,anxious to see how it worked, I invited my friend, Wenonah, a retired social worker, to join me. Wenonah loves movies but because of her low vision often finds it hard to follow the action on the screen. While she was unsure of what to expect, Wenonah happily accepted my invitation to a matinee and lunch in the name of research.
Trip to Movies
We chose a movie from the Audio Description Project’s listing, which lists first-run movies offering the audio description and then checked our local theater for show times. On the way to the theater, we discussed what to do at the theatre. I explained to Wenonah that she should request the Audio Description device at the ticket counter and that using the device is a free service.
At first, the theater staff thought that we might want close captioning or amplification. Wenonah explained, “We need the device for the visually impaired not the hearing impaired.” We were disappointed to learn that our first choice movie, a documentary, did not come with audio description. ( While it was listed as having description on the website, for some reason this theater did not provide it) After a brief discussion amongst themselves, the staff told us to go to theater #19 in the multiplex and wait outside. A uniformed staff member met us right away with a wireless device for each of us, both turned on and ready to go. Different theaters use different systems but we were given the Fidelio System from Doremi Labs. It’s a small black receiver, about the size and weight of a deck of cards with a headset attached. The theater representative let us know that there would be no narration for the previews or commercials. Once the feature film started, we’d listen to the film’s soundtrack through the theater’s regular sound system and then the narrator’s voice would come through the headset. We took a seat and I helped Wenonah feel the on and off switch at the top of the transmitter and find the volume switch located on the side. The receiver had a clip to attach to a belt but Wenonah kept hers on her lap while I put mine in the cup holder.
While we waited for the film to start, I asked Wenonah about the last movie she saw in the theater. As I suspected, it was a Disney film she had watched with her grandchildren. Wenonah has low vision due to peripheral uveitis. “It’s hard to explain my vision to people. The screen is blurry and I miss things. Last time I had to turn to my granddaughter and ask ‘what just happened?'” Of course, they whispered but Wenonah said she was a bit self-conscious about bothering people around her.
I explained to Wenonah that audio description was a much more professional, discreet and artistically done version of a sighted movie companion whispering in her ear. The narrator’s voice was artfully inserted into the movie so it wouldn’t detract from the dialog or otherwise be distracting.
As soon as the feature started, a pleasant male voice came through the headset and alternately described the images on the screen and read the opening credits. A few minutes into the film, I was pleased to hear Wenonah laughing at a sight gag. In the scene, a cocky detective jumps into the passenger seat of car and commands the driver to go but the camera reveals that there is no driver. Without the narrator pointing out that the driver’s seat was empty, Wenonah wouldn’t have gotten the joke. The narrator conveyed humor with descriptions of facial expressions and gestures as well. About 20 minutes into the movie, Wenonah smiled and turned to me saying, “This is really working!”
Unfortunately, at one point there was a glitch in the technology when the narrator’s voice disappeared. A theater employee was able to restore the lost signal fairly quickly. In those few minutes, I filled in for the narrator, doing my best to describe the action in quiet whispers. Wenonah and I were both relieved when the professional narrator’s voice came back.
When the movie ended, we returned our devices to the front desk of the theater and went to a nearby restaurant to debrief about the experience. Over a couple of delicious grilled cheese sandwiches, Wenonah gave the movie itself a lukewarm review, but was very enthusiastic about the audio description device. “It was a very positive experience. I didn’t feel like I missed anything.” She agreed that the Audio Description enhanced her enjoyment of the film and was not a distraction. “You said that the narrator wouldn’t interrupt the dialog and you were right.”
We talked about the ease of getting the device and the technical failures. Wenonah and I agreed that there was a learning curve for theater staff and that they would become more familiar with the process as more people requested audio description. Wenonah felt that the technology might be expected to have a glitch now and then but that problems would eventually become rare.
Wenonah admitted to not having high expectations of the device going into the theater, but in the end she was really impressed. “It was a very positive experience.” Now that she has discovered the benefits of audio description, she is open to trying it with the TV shows and DVD movies. She was also excited to learn that museums and even live theater performances often provide audio description — you just have to know to ask for it. All and all, we gave our outing two enthusiastic thumbs up. “I’m definitely going to use it next time.”
More Options for Audio Description
Audio description goes beyond popcorn and the movies. ACB has set up a very informative web page description. This page includes information about many aspects of description including television, movies, and other content.
As part of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA),many of the popular television networks are making certain prime-time and children’s programs accessible to viewers with vision loss by adding video description. For now, they are required to provide approximately four hours of video description per week. AFB has worked with Rovi Corporation and Comcast to develop tool to help users find Described TV Listings by zip code.
The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) recently sought comments on video description of video programming delivered via both television and the Internet. The comments they received will be used in a report to Congress.