What Is Audio Description?

February 16, 2017 BY ELISA EDELBERG
Updated: June 3, 2019

Imagine trying to enjoy a TV show, movie, or live performance, but not being able to see it. It would be challenging to gain a complete understanding of what is happening. You would most likely miss crucial information that is expressed visually through gestures, character actions, or scenery, rather than through audio. There is an exorbitant amount of detail that can be conveyed in a single image.

Now, take a moment to imagine this description– “A snowman shuffles up to a purple flower peeping out of deep snow. He takes a deep sniff. His nose lands on a frozen pond. A reindeer looks up and pants like a dog. Seeing the reindeer slip on the ice, the snowman smiles and moves toward him, though actually, he’s running on the spot. The reindeer falls on his chin. The snowman uses his arm as a crutch. The reindeer paddles his front legs.”

Without any illustrations, this description paints a pretty vivid picture of a certain scene from the movie Frozen. Listen to the description yourself in the official movie trailer:

A Definition of Audio Description

What is audio description? For those with visual impairments, description is the key to revealing detailed information that seeing individuals consume without a thought. Audio description (also referred to as “description” or “video description”) is defined as “the verbal depiction of key visual elements in media and live productions.” Audio description is meant to provide information on visual content that is considered essential to the comprehension of the program. In these cases, not providing audio description would inhibit blind and visually impaired individuals from gaining a complete understanding of the given program.

The description of media involves the interspersion of audio description snippets within the program’s original audio components, just like the example above. This is to allow the individual the benefit of the description, without sacrificing the information in the existing content.

How Is Audio Description Published?

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) lists several sufficient techniques for adding description to audio-visual material. All of these methods are reliable ways to meet the WCAG Success Criterion.

  • Adding a second, user-selectable soundtrack with audio descriptions.

    Most devices don’t have the capability of merging multiple sound tracks. This method accommodates for that by providing an option which allows users to replace the original soundtrack with a new version of the soundtrack which contains audio description. For those platforms that do allow two audio tracks to play simultaneously, a secondary audio track containing just the description is sufficient.

  • Providing a version of a movie with audio descriptions.

    This approach adds the audio description to synchronized media by utilizing a second version of the movie where the original soundtrack and additional audio description are combined into a single track.

  • Providing a movie with extended audio descriptions.

    This approach involves providing a second version of video content with extended audio descriptions. One of the main obstacles in creating traditional audio descriptions is that a vast amount of information needs to be provided in a very short amount of time (such as during pauses in the dialogue.) Typically a version of the movie with extended audio descriptions and a version without descriptions are available, or the audio descriptions can be turned on and off.

  • Using a static text alternative to describe a talking head video.

    This method is considered an alternative to audio descriptions, and is best used for media that doesn’t have important time based information in the original video portion of the media. For example, this technique would be sufficient for “talking head” videos such as a press conference, where an individual is speaking in front of a static background and there are no important visual elements to describe.

  • Using a WebVTT description track.

    HTML5 video allows for the use of a WebVTT description file. This file would be included as a element with the “description.” Screen readers should be able to read this file to provide description to users. However, this functionality has very limited support across video players.

How to Turn On Audio Description

There are several ways to enable audio descriptions, depending on your cable provider and device. Netflix has audio descriptions available for many of its programs and continues to increase the availability. Netflix users can enable audio descriptions the same way they would choose subtitles or captions by visiting their “How do I adjust subtitles, captions and alternate audio on my device?” page. For TV shows or movies that are not on Netflix, you may be able to turn audio descriptions on through a language button on the remote.

Just as captions and transcripts make video accessible for those who are Deaf or hard of hearing, audio description does the same for those who are blind or visually impaired. Both services fall under the same category of accessibility, with a shared overarching goal of making video equally accessible for all individuals.



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