Fast Facts about Audio Description

Whenever I go somewhere that features a lot of visual information, I always look to see if there are audio description services available so that I can get information about my surroundings. Unlike closed captioning, which is required by law in public places and for TV programming by the FCC, audio description is not required by law, and it can be hard to find sometimes. However, whenever I get to use it, I have found it helps me tremendously. Today, I will be answering the who, what, when, where, and whys of descriptive audio.

Who uses audio description?

Audio description is most commonly used by people with blindness and low vision. People with photosensitive conditions may also benefit from using it, and the same goes for people who are consuming media in a foreign language. Audio description helps to answer questions as to what is going on, and why, providing important contextual information.

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. Assistive listening devices (ALDs), which are about the size of a cell phone, play audio description tracks and are provided by the places that use them at no charge.

Where can it be found?

Descriptive audio is becoming more and more common, and can be found in the following locations:

When does it help?

  • In between movie scenes and dialogue, the setting is described, as well as facial expressions and movement. There are also warnings about explosions and flashing lights. This helped me a lot when I watched Incredibles 2- read my post about Incredibles 2 here
  • At plays, movement on stage is described, as well as sets and costumes
  • When visiting museums, fine details, artificats and paintings are described, and exhibit descriptions are read. Read more about visiting museums with vision impairment here
  • At theme parks, descriptions of ride effects, park shows, and scenic areas are provided
  • For sporting events, the game is narrated and the movement of the ball or similar is tracked.

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. What is legal is charging a deposit or asking for an ID in order to receive an audio description device. This is to ensure the device is not stolen or broken. The most expensive deposit I have ever seen for a device is $25.

Who produces audio description?

  • When it comes to movies, movie studios often produce their own descriptive audio or hire a third party company
  • 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
  • Theme parks will have a third party company or staff member describe park shows or scenic areas, as well as describe maps
  • Sporting events are often described by sportscasters or other staff

What are some examples of descriptions?

Some examples of lines that might be said when creating 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 trapped in a box
  • This painting features shades of bright blue and 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

When can I request a device?

If visiting a place that provides descriptive audio services, I recommend stopping by guest services or similar after entering and inquiring about how to receive an audio description device. There may be a line at some events, so I recommend getting there a bit early and being prepared to take up to fifteen minutes to receive a device. While at the counter, make sure the device is configured for audio description and not closed captioning- this happened to me once and I had to go get the device reset by staff since I could not fix it on my 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 also can be found under 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.

Audio Description symbol: "AD" with three curved lines indicating sound.

Why is audio description important?

Audio description is just one of many assistive technology tools that help people with vision impairment be included in activities. Accessibility has exploded in recent years and it is now easier than ever to go to the movies, a play, performing arts event, museum, theme park, or sporting event, and not feel like sticking out because of vision impairment. I am thankful for audio description services and will continue to use them whenever I can.