Future Reflections                                                                                Convention Report 2004

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Audio Description — The Visual Made Verbal

by Joel Snyder

Joel Snyder
Joel Snyder

Editor’s Note: Access to the mass media was never a problem for the blind when it was dominated by sound. There is no disadvantage (maybe even a slight advantage) if you are blind and getting information from radio or recordings. However, as soon as pictures were added, then it was a whole new ballgame. Fortunately (for the blind, anyway) the era of silent movies was short. Furthermore, it took time for the media to change. If you watch the early black and white movies, you will observe that the story line is carried along in pretty much the same way it was for radio, with dialogue and identifiable sound cues. But that didn’t last long, either. Writers, producers, and artists were eager to explore the potential and power of pictures. As always, resourceful blind people found ways—and still do—to access or circumvent the visual images in the media.

Of course, some blind people are more resourceful than others while some care little about access to movies, TV, or other highly visual entertainments. Nevertheless, it was, and continues to be, a disadvantage. A little over twenty years ago, a movement to address this disadvantage by adding recorded verbal descriptions to visual images got a jump-start with the infusion of federal funds. That process came to be known as Audio Description, or AD. And that brings me to my introduction to the following article. On Tuesday, June 29th, Joel Snyder made a presentation to the audience attending the “As the Twig Is Bent” national seminar for parents and teachers of blind children. Joel Snyder is an expert in audio description.

He came to the convention in his capacity as Director, Described Media—National Captioning Institute, but he is also the founder, President, and CEO of Audio Description Associates. Mr. Snyder was invited by the National Organization of Parents of Blind, to discuss the implications of Audio Description (AD) for the development of social skills in blind children. Here are his remarks:

What better way to begin this brief presentation than with description of two favorite cartoons—[Snyder reads the following descriptions while an image of each cartoon is projected onto a screen.]

“The Fan” by John McPherson

On a stage—at left, a woman in a flowing gown, her hands clasped in front of her, stands before a kneeling man in a doublet and

feathered cap. He croons, “Why dost thy heart turn away from mine?” At right, a man at a microphone speaks: “Basically, the guy with the goofy hat is ticked because this babe has been runnin’ around with the dude in the black tights.” The caption reads: “Many opera companies now provide interpreters for the culturally impaired.”

“Red and Rover” by Brian Basset

In the first panel, Red, a red-haired eight-year-old boy, is outdoors, lying on the ground against a tree, facing away from us and his right arm is around Rover, a white, short-haired dog, a lab-beagle mix. A leaf falls—Red announces, “Brown.” In the next panel, as Rover’s tail taps, Red notes, “Orange, Red,

Yellow.” In the following panel: “Red, Orange, Yellow, Yellow.” Next, Red turns toward us, eyes wide, and tells us: “Dogs only see in black and white.” The final panel depicts a more full view of the tree, leaves scattered about the pair as Red continues: “Yellow, Orange, Brown, Red, Orange …”

Indeed, description of the funnies brings me back to how I began working in this area. How many of you remember the New York City newspaper strike in the 40’s? Do you recall how mayor Fiorello LaGuardia went on the radio every day to read the funnies? That, my friends, was early Audio Description. But even that wasn’t the beginning of AD.

I think it was back in prehistoric times when two sighted cavemen were munching on some leftover sabre-tooth tiger when one fellow screamed to the other, “Look out behind you, there’s a mastodon coming from the left!” There you have it, ladies and gentlemen—the origin of Audio Description.

I came to description a little more recently.

For over twenty years I’ve been working with it. I was one of the first audio describers in a formal sense, it having been developed for the first time as an ongoing service in the performing arts in the Washington, D.C., area. Since that time I have been lucky enough to help performing arts groups, media producers, museums, schools, libraries, and other venues all around the world and on the Web develop AD programs.

I do it now on behalf of the National Captioning Institute (NCI)—broadcast media and 508 projects—and through my own company, Audio Description Associates. I focus principally on description in performing arts settings, museums, and training.

Audio Description is, to a great extent, a kind of 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, and aural [Snyder points to his ear], and oral [Snyder points to his mouth]. Using words that are succinct, vivid, and imaginative to convey the visual image that is not fully accessible to a segment of the population and not fully realized by the rest of us. The rest of us: meaning sighted folks who see but who may not observe.

Using relatively unsophisticated technology, AD can enhance arts experiences for all people: museum-lovers, theater-goers, folks watching television or at the movies. It can even improve kids’ literacy skills. It’s useful for anyone who wants to truly notice and appreciate a more full perspective on any visual event but it’s especially helpful as an access tool for people who are blind or have low vision. You’ll find it these days at arts events but also at weddings, parades, rodeos, circuses, sports events, even funerals!

Not too long ago I conducted a workshop in New Haven with day care workers and reading teachers on what I think represents a new application for audio description. We experimented with developing more descriptive language to use when working with kids and picture books. Some of these books are deficient with respect to the language skills they involve; they rely on the pictures to tell the story. But the teacher trained in audio description techniques would never simply hold up a picture of a red ball and read the text: “See the ball.” He or she might add: “The ball is red—just like a fire engine. I think that ball is as large as one of you! It’s as round as the sun—a bright red circle or sphere.” The teacher has introduced new vocabulary,

invited comparisons, and used metaphor or simile—with toddlers! By using audio description, I think that these books will be made accessible to kids who have low vision or are blind and, incidentally, help develop more sophisticated language skills for all kids. A picture is worth a thousand words? Maybe. But the audio describer might say that a few well-chosen words can conjure vivid and lasting images.

Indeed, at NCI Described Media we’re quite proud to be the folks who provide description—for the first time—for Sesame Street. We were quite heartened by a particular letter we received last year from a blind parent of sighted children who for the first time could follow along with her kids the antics of Elmo, Bert, Ernie, and all the other denizens of Sesame Street.

Let me help you see what description is all about by asking you, figuratively, to close your eyes—listen to the following excerpt from ABC’s presentation of Stephen King’s “The Shining,” described by the National Captioning Institute’s Described Media division. I’m going to play this brief excerpt three times, first with no picture on the screen and no description—just as someone with no vision might experience it if he or she had no access to description. Then I’ll play the same excerpt as described by the NCI’s Described Media division: And finally, one last time with the video intact so you can make your own judgments about how well we did with the description. [Editor’s note: What follows here is an annotated script of the description for this excerpt. The notes will afford you some insight into the reasoning for using the precise language that was used—why certain words were chosen to bring the images to the mind’s eye.]


Visual, verbal, or other aural/sound cues are in caps. The ones also in brackets are sound effects, and the ones in quotes are actual dialog voiced by a character in the movie. The audio descriptions are preceded by “>>.”

Annotations are in bold and are keyed to numerals in the description text.

Note: The appearance of the characters “Torrance” and the older man (“Jack”) is described earlier in the film.


>>Now, a woman in her thirties with long blond hair. She stands in a white (1) -tiled bathroom and wears a white (1) towel. Leaning on the black (1) sink, she gazes at her reflection in the steamed-up (2) vanity mirror.

(1)       The stark black/white “look” is critical visual element of the design. Color has been shown to be important to people who have low vision, even those who are congenitally blind.

(2)       “Steamed up” indicates that a shower may have been run, state of mind.

(:05) Pause

>>Her eyes drift down to a gold key resting on the sink (3). Engraved on the key are the numbers 217 (4). Beside the key is a packet of razor blades.

(3)       Description precedes the actual action, a useful convention to accommodate timing.

(4)       “217,” a critical piece of information for understanding later developments.

>>She picks up the razor blades and slides one of them out. Shown from her bare legs down, she drops her towel on the floor. [DROP] She steps to a black bathmat in front of a footed (5) bathtub. [CURTAINS] Sunlight shines on her bare toes (6). She steps into the tub.

(5)       Contributes to an appreciation of the style/environment of scene.

(6)       Provides explication of the sound of the unseen curtains being pulled back.

>>Now in the basement, Torrance.


>>Blood drips from the blond woman’s hand as her arm rests on the side of the bathtub.


>>In the basement, the older man blows his nose on a red handkerchief (7).

(7) Again, color. We suspect that someone involved with the film chose red for the color of this character’s handkerchief!

In the United States, in areas where a television station is equipped to participate, AD lets all television viewers to hear what they cannot see. It’s accessible via a special audio channel available on stereo televisions. Viewers select the SAP (secondary audio program) channel in order to hear the regular program audio accompanied by the descriptions, precisely timed to occur only during the lapses between dialogue. Sighted viewers appreciate the descriptions as well. It’s television for blind, low vision, and sighted people who want to be in the kitchen washing dishes while the show is on.

In live performing arts settings, AD is offered free and provides what the sighted theatergoer takes for granted; those theatrical images that visually impaired audiences formerly could only experience through the whispered asides from a companion who could see. It’s a frustrating experience sitting in a theater and wondering why everyone else is laughing at a “sight gag,” for instance. The audio describer’s ‘play-by-play’ narration clues—in the blind audience member inconspicuously. It affords the AD user a measure of independence not to mention that it frees the user’s companion from the need to convey “what happened” every few moments.

Usually at designated performances, people desiring this service may receive headphones attached to small receivers about the size of a cigarette pack. Prior to the show, a live or taped version of the program notes is transmitted through the headphones, after which the trained describer narrates the performance from another part of the theater via an FM radio or infrared transmitter using concise, objective descriptions all slipped in between portions of dialogue or songs.

In museums, AD can enhance the docent-led, guided tour experience for sighted visitors as well as provide an added measure of accessibility for people who are blind or have low vision. Recorded audio-described tours help visitors truly see the magnificent pieces in a museum by planting in the mind’s eye vivid evocations of what is on the tour. It’s done through skillful and imaginative use of language and vocalizations—using metaphor, finding new words and phrases, describing each painting or sculpture, asking rhetorical questions to spark a visitor’s own imagination. On a recorded tour, directional information can also enable a visitor to tour a space independently.

Friends, access to culture is everyone’s right and there simply is no good reason why a person with a particular disability must also be culturally disadvantaged. But the bad reasons remain, and I don’t think those who control cultural venues will loosen their grip on excuses for non-action until folks demand the access that is their right (to paraphrase Star Trek) to demand the opportunity to go where everyone else has already gone. Part of that has to do with, you should excuse the expression, VISIBILITY. Visibility of folks who desire the service making their wishes known, and visibility of the service itself. That’s why I think that when description is more prevalent in the media, other art forms and venues will follow suit.

Just a few days ago I returned from doing audio description training in Russia and Lithuania. I’ve also done training in Bulgaria and workshops in Czech and Romania. These new democracies are struggling with the fiscal difficulties attendant to any burgeoning market economy. Even within that context, these nations are making real the meaning of democracy—equal access for all.

Ultimately, I believe that in this tremendously prosperous nation, with all of its bountiful resources, there shouldn’t be a state in this nation or a television network or a cable channel or a movie theater that doesn’t offer full access.

Joel Snyder is Director, Described Media National Captioning Institute; email: <jsnyder@nicap.org>; and President, Audio Description Associates, www.audiodescribe.com, email: <jsnyder@audiodescribe.com>.

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