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The What, How, and Why of Audio Description with Dr. Joel Snyder
June 17, 2022
Welcome to 3Play Media’s Allied Podcast, a show on all things accessibility. This month’s episode features Dr. Joel Snyder, Ph.D., and is about audio description.
Dr. Snyder is known internationally as one of the world’s first “audio describers.” He is a pioneer in the field of Audio Description, a translation of visual images to vivid language for the primary benefit of people who are blind or have a vision impairment. Since 1981, he has introduced audio description techniques in over 40 states and 64 countries and has made thousands of live events, media projects, and museums accessible. Most recently, Dr. Snyder was named a Fulbright Scholar to train audio describers in Greece over a four-week period in 2019.
In 2014, the American Council of the Blind published Dr. Snyder’s book, The Visual Made Verbal – A Comprehensive Training Manual and Guide to the History and Applications of Audio Description, now available as an audiobook and in Braille from the Library of Congress, in screen reader accessible formats, and in English, Polish, Russian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Chinese print editions; a version in Italian is planned for 2022. His Ph.D. is from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona with a focus on audiovisual translation/audio description. Dr. Snyder is the President of Audio Description Associates, LLC and he serves as the Founder/Senior Consultant of the Audio Description Project of the American Council of the Blind.
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ELISA LEWIS: Welcome to Allied, the podcast for everything you need to know about web and video accessibility. I’m your host, Elisa Lewis, and I sit down with an accessibility expert each month to learn about their work. Every episode has a transcript published with it, which can be viewed by accessing the episode on the 3Play Media website.
If you like what you hear on Allied, please subscribe or leave a review. Allied is brought to you by 3Play Media, your video accessibility partner. Visit us at www.3playmedia.com to learn why thousands of customers trust us to make their video and media accessible.
Today, we’re joined by Dr. Joel Snyder, who is known internationally as one of the world’s first audio describers. He is a pioneer in the field of audio description, a translation of visual images to vivid language for the primary benefit of people who are blind or have a vision impairment. Since 1981, he has introduced audio description techniques in over 40 states and 64 countries and has made thousands of live events, media projects, and museums accessible.
Most recently, Dr. Snyder was named a Fulbright scholar to train audio describers in Greece over a four-week period in 2019. In 2014, the American Council of the Blind published Dr. Snyder’s book, The Visual Made Verbal, a Comprehensive Training Manual and Guide to the History and Applications of Audio Description. His Ph.D. is from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona with a focus on audiovisual translation and audio description.
Dr. Snyder is the president of Audio Description Associates, LLC, and he serves as a founder and senior consultant of the Audio Description Project of the American Council of the Blind. Joel, we’re so glad to have you on the show today and excited to learn more about audio description from a classified expert. Thank you for being here.
JOEL SNYDER: Well, thank you, Elisa. Thank you. It’s great to be here.
ELISA LEWIS: So before we dive into our theme for today, I’d love to know a little bit more about you. What is something important about who you are that’s not covered in your formal bio?
JOEL SNYDER: Oh my goodness. Well, golly. My background is primarily in theater and music and media. That’s where I’ve always wanted to spend my life and my career and have been fortunate to be able to do that as a professional actor, and voice talent, and such. But I spent 20 years at the National Endowment for the Arts as an arts administrator giving away your tax dollars, and that was a marvelous experience.
But all throughout that time, I was working with audio description and really fell into that in the ’70s when I was an undergraduate and was going through kind of a– well, not exactly depression. But kind of like, what am I going to do with my life. And one of my sisters said, you know, why don’t you think about using your gifts, your voice, to help others. Just think about ways to volunteer. And I took that to heart and became a volunteer reader for a blind college student.
I became a reader for the Library of Congress, reading talking books, and then finally became a voice talent or reader for The Washington Ear, a radio reading service primarily directed towards folks who are blind or have low vision. They could hear, on a radio frequency, the newspaper read to them.
So I became a describer before there even was such a thing, because I was reading The Washington Post on Sundays. How do you make the comics accessible? You don’t just read the text. You have to describe the images. And I was doing that, but it was another 10 years before audio description came together as a formal service.
ELISA LEWIS: That’s really cool. Thank you. In your interview with the Picture This podcast, you mentioned that audio description is a concept that you discovered almost accidentally, and you just touched on that a little bit.
JOEL SNYDER: Yeah, a little bit.
ELISA LEWIS: Could you tell us more about the introduction to the field and the development of your career?
JOEL SNYDER: Sure. Well, I was, as I mentioned, already a reader for this radio reading service, The Washington Ear. And part of what drew me to that is my background in theater, my background as English teacher working with words, loving words and the English language, as odd as the English language can be at times, and then also using my voice to do all of that. So as I mentioned, I was describing even when there wasn’t any such formal service.
It hearkens back a little bit to the 1940s, before I was alive even, and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York City, who was a much-beloved mayor, during his tenure was a newspaper strike. How did people get information in those days? Well, either the newspaper or the radio. There was no internet. A newspaper strike– now, he was a savvy mayor. He didn’t take the side of the workers, but he didn’t take the side of the publishers. He took the side of the people.
So he went on the radio every Sunday and read the comics to the people of New York City and quickly realized, obviously, as I did some years later, you better describe the images. And he did that off the cuff as an untrained talent, if you will. And it was much, much beloved, because he was a much-beloved mayor.
So years later, I picked up and emulated Mayor LaGuardia in a way, and then that led to the development of the audio description service by The Washington Ear– by the way, founded by and led by a blind woman, Margaret Rockwell, who later became Margaret Pfanstiehl.
ELISA LEWIS: Awesome. That’s such a fun fact about Mayor LaGuardia. I’m personally from the New Jersey and New York area.
JOEL SNYDER: Oh, Sure.
ELISA LEWIS: And so I really am more familiar with the airport. But I have much more appreciation now.
JOEL SNYDER: Alright. Well, I’m sure you at least recognize the name.
ELISA LEWIS: Yes, of course. Exactly. So I’m curious. It’s really interesting, your personal example and what you described about Mayor LaGuardia, about this acting influence. And I’m curious if this is a common– having that background and acting is a common introduction for individuals into the field of audio description.
JOEL SNYDER: Yes and no, and I’ll explain that by noting that most actors are interested in being in the piece that they are working with. They are performing. They want to be, they need to be in the spotlight.
And sometimes, that attitude is really not what we want as an audio describer, because the audio describer has to fade into the background, and really have his or her impact, but not be noticed. You’re not in the piece. You’re of the piece.
The best compliment an audio transcriber can get at the end of a play, say, for a live performing arts event– a person meets the describer, a person who’s blind, the best compliment would be, I got everything, but I forgot you were there.
ELISA LEWIS: Right.
JOEL SNYDER: And actors sometimes don’t want to be forgotten. They want to be in the spotlight, as it were. Now, what confuses some people, I think, is that actors oftentimes have trained voices. They should, certainly. And this is audio description. The words are spoken aloud, so people will say, oh, I heard that describer. Da dum dum. They go on. Well, who they heard was a voice talent, especially for media, who was voicing the words written by an audio describer.
So in theater, most times, it’s the same person. But for media, which is far more prevalent, it’s two different people. So audio description starts, really, first and foremost with the words, with the language.
And the first fundamental of all of that is the same as a lesson in the first six acting lessons by Richard Boleslawski, a well-known mini textbook in acting. And one of those lessons is observation. Actors have to be trained in observing the world.
And describers, of course, need to observe the world around them. They cannot simply go through the world passively letting it go by. They need to become active seers of the world around them and really notice as the world goes by.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, thank you. That’s such an interesting interpretation and clarity as to the difference between what the description is, and the acting, and why there may be some overlap. But really, it’s its own thing.
JOEL SNYDER: That’s right. Yeah, that’s right. I think so.
ELISA LEWIS: So I know you use the phrase “the visual made verbal.” I’d love to unpack this a bit, as audio description is an accommodation that seems to elude people, particularly in knowing exactly what’s appropriate or necessary to describe. So to begin, could you give us some background on audio description basics?
JOEL SNYDER: Sure. We touched on that a little bit with regard to observation. Audio description, as it has become more prevalent over the last four decades– because it was begun in 1981 part of the program that I was at in Washington, DC, with performing arts– as it has grown, it has become studied as an academic discipline as a form of audiovisual translation.
It is a translation of visual images to words. So it’s been embraced by that academic community, the community of scholars and practitioners throughout the world who do subtitling, they do dubbing. And now, audio description is all a part of that field as well.
So much of my work has been presentations at those kinds of academic conferences and presentations all over the world, because so much media comes out of America in English. Well, it has to be subtitled, dubbed in other languages. And in the same way, audio description has to be made available also. So it’s a kind of audiovisual translation.
And as far as how we do that most effectively, we begin with observation, noticing everything. But the odd thing is that the second fundamental that I coined is editing or identifying key visual elements.
First of all, there’s just a practicality. Audio description in media, in theater, is inserted in clauses between bits and pieces of dialogue, or critical sound elements. Sometimes, a few precious seconds are all that’s available. So there is no way we can possibly describe everything that we see.
Oftentimes, you’ll ask a person who’s blind, well, what would you like to know. Well, that’s kind of an open-ended question. And the response would be open-ended. It would be, well, I want to know everything. Well, it’s simply not possible to do that given the practicalities of the situation. Sometimes, there’s enhanced audio description, a little bit like pre-show notes at a performance, where you can listen to some detail ahead of the show. Enhanced description sometime on a website, there can be a web page that has more description.
But during the performance, no. We have to limit what we describe of necessity, and because it’s better description if we really try to understand we’re in service to the people listening and to the people who have created the art form we’re working with. So if we’re really listening, we’re really observing, we tell what’s most critical to an understanding– he points to his head– and an appreciation– his hands are on his heart– of the image.
Let’s zero in on that essence and let everything else go. And that, in the way, is the heart of good art-making. It’s carving away the utilitarian symbols, the everyday, and getting to the essence of what that artmaker is about. So we choose from what we see, and that’s an important part of audio description.
Sometimes a visual element that’s not even very prominent is important because it shows up later in the film, or a particular act or action is foreshadowed that way. We want to know what’s going on in the artist’s head and pick up on that.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. I know another thing that comes up often, and I’m curious to hear your perspective, is really being cognizant, as a describer, of not putting your own interpretation on different things and being very objective rather than subjective. Do you have any tips or any observations about that you can share?
JOEL SNYDER: I think that’s very important, this notion and the differences between objectivity and subjectivity. It’s currently being discussed somewhat anew in forums, in Europe in particular. Well, there’s no way a human being can be objective. Then why try to be?
Anais Nin, the great diarist, said, we don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are. So you look at something, Elisa, I look at something. We may see two very different things, even though it’s the same thing.
So I understand that, and I agree. But I think the job of the describer is to be aware of that tendency to interpret in a certain way and put a check on it. Put a check on it. Hold it at bay.
For instance, if I was looking at you, Elisa– I’m making this up, OK. Elisa is crying. Tears are streaming down her face. She is so sad. I would say she’s distraught. Is that a good description of Elisa in that state? I’d say no. I say no, because Elisa– I forget. Elisa, where are you based?
ELISA LEWIS: In Boston.
JOEL SNYDER: Boston, that’s right. Elisa, just this morning, won the Massachusetts lottery. You’re crying. Tears are streaming down your face. But for some reason, the describer jumped to, oh, she must be sad. No, no, no, she’s happy.
She doesn’t have to work anymore. She’s going to buy an island somewhere and invite all of us to stay with her, whatever. So that’s a very bold example, if you will, of jumping to a conclusion, of making a subjective interpretation.
Here’s the thing about people who are blind. Their eyes don’t work, or maybe they don’t work so well. But more often than not, the brain is perfectly intact. They simply need from us what they’re not getting, which is the visual image. We give that to them as straightforwardly as possible and let them think, oh, she’s happy, she’s sad, whatever in the context of the play of the piece.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. Great. And I love the example.
JOEL SNYDER: I hope you win the lottery, Elisa.
ELISA LEWIS: Thank you. Me too. Speaking of examples, I know that you do have an audio example. And I think that speaking about audio description and what goes into it, now might be a great time to play that audio clip. What do you think?
JOEL SNYDER: Sure, sure. I’ll share a little bit of the audio track, the original audio track of a feature film called The Color of Paradise, a wonderful film, an Iranian film. I think it was from the late ’90s, one of my favorite films. I want you and the listeners to experience this film as a totally blind person would have experienced it in the ’90s in the movie theater. Just the soundtrack, no description.
I’m not playing the image, of course. This is a podcast, an audio event. But you’re going to hear the original soundtrack just a little bit. It’s a major film. This should not be a problem, a professionally done soundtrack. What do you think? What can you glean about the film when you’re limited to listening only?
JOEL SNYDER: What the heck is going on, right? I mean, if I was a blind person in the movie theater, by this point, I would say, this is not for me, or I’d be asleep or something. Some of your listeners probably nodded off at this point. Or perhaps the person in the theater is going with the elbow to their partner. What’s going on? What’s going on? What’s going on? And they try to explain, and it bothers everybody else. And, oh, you can’t do that. Right?
So it basically shuts a person off from culture if there isn’t that accommodation. And actually, not only that, it basically creates a disability, if you will.
And what I mean by that is simply that if a building is constructed with just steps to enter, a person who uses a wheelchair is disabled. They’re cut off from that building. If the building is constructed with a ramp, the disability goes away, because they could access the building.
In the same way, that movie is inaccessible, and the blind person is disabled. Well, the disability is created because the film hasn’t been made accessible, isn’t accommodating.
So what to do? What to do? Well, when this film was broadcast on national television 20 years ago, I wrote the description and voiced it. So you’re still blind now. I’m just going to play audio, and everybody’s listening anyway, right. But it’s the same excerpt, but with audio description. Let’s try to see by listening.
– Mohammad kneels and pats hands through the thick ground cover of brown curled leaves. A scurry nestling struggles on the ground near Muhammad’s hand. His palm hovers above the baby bird. He lays his hand lightly over the tiny creature. Smiling, Mohammad curls his fingers around the chick and scoops it into his hands. He stands and strokes its nearly featherless head with a fingertip.
Mohammad starts as the bird nips his finger. He taps his finger on the chick’s gaping beak. He tilts his head back, then drops it forward. Mohammad tips the chick into his front shirt pocket. Wrapping his legs and arms around a tree trunk, Mohammad climbs.
He [INAUDIBLE] his arms to a tangle of thin upper branches. His legs flail for a foothold. Mohammad stretches an arm between a fork in the trunk of the tree and wedges in his head and shoulder. His shoes slip on the rough bark.
He wraps his legs around the lower trunk, then uses his arms to pull himself higher. He rises into thicker foliage and holds onto tangles of smaller branches. Gaining his footing, Mohammad stands upright and cocks his head to one side.
An adult bird flies from a nearby branch. Mohammad extends his open hand. He touches a branch and runs his fingers over wide green leaves.
He pats his hand down the length of the branch. His fingers trace the smooth bark of the upper branches, searching at the network of connecting tree limbs, and discover their joints.
Above his head, Mohammad’s fingers find a dense mass of woven twigs, a bird’s nest. Smiling, he removes the chick from his shirt pocket and drops it gently into the nest beside another fledgling. He rubs the top of the chick’s head with his index finger. Mohammad wiggles his finger like a worm and taps the chick’s open beak. Smiling, he slowly lowers his hand.
JOEL SNYDER: Ah, a lot more clear, to say the least. And in training, sometimes we’ll analyze how the description was created and what kinds of fundamentals were used, best practices were used to create the description.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, thank you for sharing that. Definitely, I think, hearing the audio description and hearing it first without and then with is really the best way to understand and–
JOEL SNYDER: Yeah, I think it’s helping.
ELISA LEWIS: –impact.
JOEL SNYDER: Yeah.
ELISA LEWIS: Great. I know we touched on this a little bit, but you’ve done a lot of work internationally, including a Fulbright award funding, a series of instructional seminars on your work. In some parts of the world, audio description is really studied as a form of audiovisual translation.
JOEL SNYDER: Right.
ELISA LEWIS: Could you share more with us about that, and why you think description is studied this way in certain parts of the world, but it doesn’t really seem that we think of it this way in the US? And what can we maybe learn in the US through this understanding?
JOEL SNYDER: Right. You’re making an excellent point. In the United States, when we make media accessible to people who are deaf, oftentimes it’s via sign interpretation. But oftentimes, it’s simply captions at the bottom of the screen.
Now, captions is the word we use in this country to describe that kind of accessibility, the sounds– which includes words being spoken– sounds being translated into a sense form that’s accessible to a deaf person, a visual form, so they can see it.
In this country, it’s typically English to English, because it’s captions, and the media is in English, and they want it to be accessible in English. Well, so much media is created in the United States in English but appreciated worldwide.
So that created a huge market in what’s referred to in the biz as localization. And they are localizing the content for that particular area, which means subtitling it or perhaps dubbing it into that other language.
And as I alluded to earlier, audio description has been embraced as a kind of localization, as a kind of audiovisual translation. It isn’t thought of that way in this country, because it’s not about one language to another. But it is still a translation of visual images to words.
And actually, the American Translators Association, which is based here in the United States, relatively recently created a new division for audiovisual translation, even though subtitling, dubbing, is not as big a– not as much demand for it in this country. But they have a new division for that. I’ve spoken at their conferences. And in fact, in the fall, I will be a special guest doing a keynote on audiovisual translation as audio description.
So it is studied as an academic discipline mostly in Europe. People get master’s degrees. My own Ph.D. is from the University in Barcelona, where actually I trained those people, those professors, in audio description years ago and then came back to work with them and got my own Ph.D. So that’s the relationship between description, I think, and audiovisual translation.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense, just thinking of it from purely the language perspective and content being created in English and then dispersed throughout the world. Do you think that this lack of thinking of it as translation in the US provides a lesser service, and lacks this nuanced understanding?
JOEL SNYDER: That’s interesting. I hadn’t quite thought about it that way. It certainly, in this country, has not been yet focused on as an academic discipline, as something that can be researched, studied, and had controlled experiments done on how– reception studies, how this kind of description versus that kind of description has an impact on a given audience.
And not just people who are blind or have low vision, but it has been shown in studies in other countries to be effective for people with learning disabilities, people on the autism spectrum, people who are learning a new language.
They can hear words that they perhaps see in captions, and it has a greater impact for them. And even the development of literacy for children, that needs to be studied more thoroughly. And why not in this country?
I’ve done workshops with teachers and daycare students. Some are totally blind, perhaps, in a classroom. And obviously, if you hold up a picture book– a picture book, right, most teachers, they’re just going to read the text. The assumption is everybody can see the image.
There’s the sun, or there’s a ball, big red ball, right? “See the ball” is the caption. You turn the page. Well, no. What if you don’t turn the page? What if you linger for just a moment and say, that ball is red like a fire engine. It’s as big as you are. It’s as round as the Sun, a great red circle or sphere.
What have you done? You’ve made that picture accessible to a child who can’t see it, and you’ve also maybe boosted the literacy levels of any child listening. They’re hearing similes. They’re hearing synonyms, increased vocabulary, et cetera. So all of that, I think, we would do well to study that more thoroughly in this country as it is being approached in Europe and other parts of the world.
ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. Yeah, the example that you just gave, even to me, as I’m listening to your example, really I’m visualizing it and totally enhances the experience. I think that’s just a really important piece of accessibility as a whole that we think of it, is, to your point, it increases and enhances the experience of anyone, whether you’re–
JOEL SNYDER: Everybody.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, everyone.
JOEL SNYDER: Exactly. And that’s been shown so often. Curb cuts are there for people who are using wheelchairs, but bicyclists don’t think about that. People with baby strollers, they figure that curb cut was there for them.
Or the captions on screen in a bar. Well, yeah, because it’s noisy in the bar, so you don’t want the– [INAUDIBLE] read it. Well, yeah. But it’s for people who are deaf, initially. So [LAUGHS] even audio description, I think, will eventually have greater– forgive the expression– visibility, and the impact on everyone will be felt, and it will be more and more accepted.
ELISA LEWIS: We hope you’re enjoying this episode of Allied. If you want to learn more about audio description, we have a webinar coming up that you may be interested in. Join us on Thursday, August 11 at 2:00 PM Eastern time for intro to audio description.
This free virtual webinar will cover the basics of how to add audio description to online video, legal requirements for audio description, video player compatibility, examples and demos, and how to create audio description, as well as the many benefits of including audio description. Register today at www.3playmedia.com/learn/webinars.
So I want to shift gears slightly. I’m curious. I want to talk a little bit about synthesized speech. And I know that this is something that I suppose you could say is a bit controversial. I’m curious. In your opinion, what impact, if any, does the use of synthesized speech have on the user’s experience when utilizing audio description?
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JOEL SNYDER: Yeah, it is somewhat controversial. And let me start by simply saying what a wonderful bit of progress in the AI world to be able to synthesize speech. It has been around for some time now, but it has developed a great deal so that it’s better, it’s easier to listen to, et cetera. But– [LAUGHS]
So it has wonderful applications, but for dramas, for film, I still believe strongly that the human voice is far more capable, and will remain far more capable for the foreseeable future, of making the nuances and capturing the subtleties that are involved in making meaning with your voice. It’s audio description.
So I mentioned the first two fundamentals, observation and editing, or identifying key visual elements. Well, the third is where we spend most of the time, language, coming up with the words themselves.
But the fourth fundamental is vocal skills and knowing how to use your voice not to be in the movie, but to be of the movie. The tone of the voice must be consonant with what’s happening on the screen. Now, how is the AI speech synthesis going to always capture that same kind of subtlety, if you will?
And it’s really quite critical to do. Punctuation in written language does for the eye, if you will, what good vocal skills do for the ear. So if I say to you, Elisa, woman without her man is a savage. You’re nodding, Elisa. Do you agree with that? Woman without her– I’m surprised. I would–
Woman without her man is a savage. You agree. All right. Well, let’s move on. [LAUGHS]
ELISA LEWIS: [LAUGHS]
JOEL SNYDER: Now, you’re being a good interviewer. That’s right. Well, if you don’t agree, and I don’t agree, and most people would not agree, say those words back to me. Don’t change any. Don’t add any. Don’t take any away. Don’t rearrange them. Just those words. Woman without her man is the savage. Just with the way you say it, make it mean the opposite.
ELISA LEWIS: Woman without her man– no, no.
Woman without her man is a savage.
JOEL SNYDER: You’re getting there. You’re getting there. Woman. Without her–
ELISA LEWIS: Man is the savage.
JOEL SNYDER: Man is a savage. Yeah. Now, can AI capture that? I don’t know. But that’s a pretty extreme example, if you will, of– there are whole books written on the use of the comma, and how without a comma, it changes the meaning
ELISA LEWIS: Exactly.
JOEL SNYDER: –without the pause, that kind of thing. But you know. Let’s eat, grandma.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, [INAUDIBLE].
JOEL SNYDER: Let’s eat grandma. You know, that kind of thing. But those are pretty broad examples. But will AI pick up the nuances involved in matching tone of voice to what’s happening on stage or in a film? If it’s a happy scene, most likely a lilt in the voice will be appropriate. If it’s a sad scene, a more sober sound. This gets towards the subtleties that I have not yet heard text to speech capture.
And by the way, people who are blind listen to text to speech all day long– getting their emails read to them. It’s useful. It’s wonderful. It’s great. But do you want that to be part of an artistic experience? I say not.
I think the vocal skills of the audio describer and the whole audio description process has to be done with the same level of professional artistry as the actors, as the filmmakers, everybody else, because that’s what sighted people get, and blind people deserve no less.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. Thank you so much. I think that’s a really interesting way to think about it. And yeah, I think there’s a lot to think about it.
JOEL SNYDER: And by the way, audio description began and was thought of initially by Margaret Pfanstiehl, by Chet Avery, here in Washington in the federal government, by blind people. And the whole essence of working in accessibility is nothing about us without us. Well, people who are blind have to be part of audio description production, as consultants or quality control experts on the writing of the description, as audio editors.
Some of the best audio editors I know are people who are totally blind. And voice talents. I oftentimes– the audio description that I produce, sure, I voice a good bit of it. But I oftentimes will use blind voice talents. There’s no problem at all. They either read a Braille script, it’s a hard copy, or it’s refreshable Braille display, or it’s re-spoken to them through an earbud, whatever it is.
But they can be a part of this production. So to the greater extent that you have text to speech, you’re stealing work from people who are blind, to some extent, you know. We don’t need to go there. With a population that already has 70% unemployment, we’re going to add to that? No.
ELISA LEWIS: I think that’s a great point that you bring up of just making people aware that blind individuals can and should be part of this. I think a lot of people think, well, how would they describe something visual they can’t see. I love that you shared that example.
JOEL SNYDER: They may very well not be doing– the only part that they would not be able to capture, perhaps, is that observation skill. But they can do that with assistance from a sighted prescriber and maybe produce the script collaboratively, something like that.
But beyond that, some of the best writers I know, some of the best people working with language, are people who are totally blind. There’s no reason why they can’t be proficient at developing an audio description script, the words.
ELISA LEWIS: I’ve even been astounded and seen beautiful paintings and artwork or photography from individuals who are blind. And I think it’s just something that should continue to be talked about, and maybe people have that moment of, wow, I didn’t think of that. But as you said earlier, the only thing different about blind or low vision individuals is the vision. The brain is still there.
JOEL SNYDER: That’s right. Absolutely. And we all perceive the world differently. A person who is totally blind relies on perceiving the world through their ears, through smell, through touch, that kind of thing. But no matter the individual, whatever their circumstances, they’re perceiving the world in their own unique way. We see things as we are, as Anais Nin said. And that’s OK. We’re all different.
And it helps, then, I think, erase– if people embrace that idea, it erases some of the– oh, is stigma too strong a word? But some of the misunderstandings. Some of the, oh, a person who’s blind, uh-oh, I better– what do I do? I have to walk on eggshells or something. And I better not say the word “see” or something. No, that’s just silly. People who are blind are folks just like everybody else.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. So you’ve had the opportunity to provide live audio description for the presidential inauguration parades in 2009 and 2013. So now that we’ve established some of the basics of audio description, hopefully the audience has a little bit better understanding of what it is. I’d like to get a little bit more technical. Could you expand on the differences between live and pre-recorded audio description?
JOEL SNYDER: Right. And I think perhaps there really should be three areas there. There should be live, there should be prerecorded, and there should be extemporaneous.
For instance, someone describing a live event, like a play, well, they may very well– and perhaps they would do well to develop an audio description script if they’ve seen it, if they’ve worked with the production. So when it comes time to do the description, they have half an eye on their script and one and a half eyes on the stage, because it’s live.
They know the script. They created it, right? So they’re still observing. They’re still sensitive to things that can happen at the spur of the moment. But that is still following a script. It’s live.
Extemporaneous description is more like what I did for the inaugurations. I do this for Microsoft live events, other– I’ve described– oh golly. I’ve described rodeos, sports events, weddings, funerals, where you don’t preview it at all. You can’t write out a description.
You’re employing all those fundamentals [SNAPS] extemporaneously at the moment, of the moment, and deciding what am I seeing. What’s most critical to convey? What are the best words, and how am I going to voice it? All of that happening extemporaneously at the spur of the moment. And that takes experience and an added sense of a comfort level with doing things live.
Pre-recorded, like this podcast, we can be chatting and I can then have a coughing fit, and then you cut that out for when it gets broadcast. And that happens with audio description that’s recorded. Sometimes, it’s not even done– the writing is done to the picture, but the voicing of it is recorded just from audio description line to the next line to the next line of audio description. They’re not even following the movie.
So sometimes, you can voice the description for a two-hour film in less than an hour, and then it’s all inserted and spliced together, if you will, by an audio editor, trained audio editor. So that’s an important distinction right there. So I think that points up the distinctions between live, recorded, and extemporaneous description.
ELISA LEWIS: I’m curious, just on that note about the extemporaneous description and specific to these inauguration parades, can you describe a little bit more about what that experience was like? I know you mentioned that you have to be on and very quick to do all the different pieces in the moment. But what types of things in that instance are you capturing in the description?
JOEL SNYDER: Well, yeah. That’s good. Doing extemporaneous description does not mean doing it without preparation. Preparation is key. I worked closely with the White House. I wasn’t able to attend a rehearsal, if you will, or preview the inauguration.
But I knew the order of events. I knew the names and the pronunciations of people that would be featured, and that gave me a good solid background. I could even preview examples of garments that are being worn, that kind of thing.
So in a little bit, in a way, well, I was preparing ahead of time. I wasn’t writing out the description. Who knows what’s going to come up when? But I was preparing for it. So that’s an important part of it. It’s not just the time when you’re on doing the describing. There’s a good bit of preparation before you do the description. That’s true, obviously, for film and for live events as well. You’re working toward where you’re actually recording it, or voicing it, or doing it extemporaneously.
And of course, a nice little perk of doing description with the White House during the Obama years is that I got to meet Mr. Obama on two occasions. And he knew what audio description was, as a matter of fact. He was clued in.
Mr. Obama was the first president to hire a advisor to the president for disability policy who, by the way, was a blind man, Kareem Dale. And I worked with Kareem on developing, with the American Council of the Blind and its Audio Description Project, the first-ever audio described tour of the White House.
So it’s somewhat limited these days. You have to get on a list from a Congressman, and that sort of thing. You can’t just walk– You could never just walk into the White House. You go through metal detectors and all of that kind of thing. But once you’re there, the tour is just a route that you walk for about 20 minutes. And nobody is narrating it. It’s just you. It’s self-guided, if you will. There are Secret Service agents in different rooms so that you don’t steal the silverware or something like that.
But you’re going through the public rooms of the White House, and it’s a great thing. If you’re blind, it’s not so great. And for the audio described tour, when we first did it, voiced by a blind man on an MP3 player, and you could listen to Eddie Walker narrating the description, which I wrote. And it came alive, the White House came alive to people who otherwise would just be walking along or relying on somebody to say a few words, maybe disturbing others, et cetera. So anyway, a little bit byproduct of the whole White House experience.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, that’s very cool, both the fact that Mr. Obama knew and is aware of audio description.
JOEL SNYDER: Yeah. Isn’t that something?
ELISA LEWIS: Very cool that you got to meet him, and that the tour is a little bit more accessible.
JOEL SNYDER: Yeah, yeah.
ELISA LEWIS: I’m curious, as we start to wrap up our conversation today, what do you see for the future and the evolution of audio description?
JOEL SNYDER: Well, I think there is going to be– well, two things, two things. I think there’s going to be a real increase in the level of professionalism with regard to description. If you want to hire a sign interpreter for an event, well, you will probably do well to hire somebody who has been certified as a professional sign interpreter.
They are part of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, and that gives you an assurance that this person has been through a certain amount of training. They have a certain amount of experience. Well, the American Council of the Blind and its Audio Description Project are working very closely with a group– the acronym is ACVREP, the Academy for Certified Vision Rehabilitation Education Professionals. It’s a mouthful. But they do certification of people working in visual fields, like orientation and mobility and other areas.
They are now embracing audio description, and I’m part of a group that’s working towards building this certification effort where a describer can, if they’ve gotten a certain amount of experience, whatever, they can actually take a test. They can be evaluated for receiving certification as an audio describer. That’s going to be a big plus, I think.
It started with volunteers. It still involves a great deal of volunteers, especially with live performance around the world. But I think having that added layer of professionalism will help everybody.
The other thing is a technological advance, and it exists now. And I’m speaking of, in this country, a service called Spectrum Access. It is an app that you download to your smartphone. Well, when you have that app and you go to a movie theater, you’re going to see this great new film that just came out. You go to the website of the app and find out does the audio description track– the audio track, just the description– exist for that movie?
If it does, you download it to the app. Turn the app on. You’re in the movie theater, or you could be at home. Turn the app on. The app listens to the original soundtrack and automatically syncs–
ELISA LEWIS: Wow.
JOEL SNYDER: –the audio description to the original track of that film. And you listen with your own smartphone, your own earbud. You don’t have to be using equipment at the movie theater. If you’re at home, the audio description doesn’t have to be on for everybody. It can be off, but you can hear it. Perhaps your friends, your family, they don’t need, they don’t want to hear the audio description.
That’s going to be far more ubiquitous, I’m convinced of. Right now, there’s probably, I’m thinking, upwards of 1,000 films available. But there are tens of thousands of films. And as those description tracks become more available, I think more and more people will be accessing them via their own smartphone. Not everybody in the world has a smartphone, but that’s probably increasing all the time. And I think that’s going to be an important advance. It has already been.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, that’s very cool. What would be one or two pieces of advice that you’d want to share with our listeners who are interested in learning more about the process of audio description?
JOEL SNYDER: First and foremost, I think it’s important to have an understanding of low vision, of blindness, of people who are blind.
The sad reality is that most audio description nowadays is for media, and most of the people writing the description are doing it from home. And they, perhaps, have never even met somebody who’s blind. And I think that knowledge, or lack of knowledge, colors what you produce as a describer. So I think developing that understanding is a critical part of it all.
And then the other thing would be training. Like anything, it is a professional activity. Sure, back in caveman days, people were describing things to somebody else. That kind of informal audio description goes on every day. I do it. You do it. Everybody does it. But as a formal service, it really requires study, experience, training.
And once again, the Audio Description Project of the American Council of the Blind, which I founded 12 years ago and still work with as the founder and senior consultant, we offer two institutes every year, where five days of intensive training in audio description techniques. And they actually work doing description, and such.
So the moral of the story, Elisa, is if your listeners did not enjoy this last hour, they will definitely not enjoy five days with me at one of our audio description institutes. Having said that, I want to mention the website of the audio description project, which is simply adp.acb.org. Https://adp.acb.org. Lots of information about all the different initiatives we have and information about audio description, more than you’ll find anywhere else.
ELISA LEWIS: Awesome. Thank you for sharing that. And speaking of online, in addition to that website, where I know you have a lot of resources on there, where can our listeners find and connect with you online?
JOEL SNYDER: Oh, sure. Well, probably the easiest thing to do is via email. My own company is called Audio Description Associates, LLC, and our website is audiodescribe.com, which I need to do a great deal of fancying up, if you will, because I don’t rely on it all that much these days.
But it has a great deal of information there. And people can write to me via my email address, jsnyder– J-S-N-Y-D-E-R– @audiodescribe.com, or through the firstname.lastname@example.org.
ELISA LEWIS: Perfect. Thank you so much.
JOEL SNYDER: Yeah.
ELISA LEWIS: Thank you again for joining us today, really enjoyed chatting with you.
JOEL SNYDER: Oh, well, thank you, Elisa. And bravo to you and 3Play Media for the good work you do with accessibility. You guys have come so far in a relatively small amount of time. It’s great to see.
ELISA LEWIS: Thanks for listening to Allied. If you enjoyed this episode and you’d like to help support the podcast, please share it with others, post about it on social media, or leave us a rating and review. To catch all the latest on accessibility, visit www.3playmedia.com/alliedpodcast. Thanks again, and I’ll see you next time.