The American Council of the Blind (ACB) proudly announces the 2020 Achievement Awards in Audio Description, an initiative of the Council’s Audio Description Project (ADP).
In conjunction with ACB’s 59th annual conference and convention (held virtually in July 2020), the awards will be presented at a plenary session of the conference broadcast via Zoom and on ACB Radio to thousands of people who are blind, ACB members/convention registrants and all people worldwide who are advocates for audio description and greater access to the arts for people with vision loss.
Achievement in Audio Description – Performing Arts: Broadway Sacramento
Since the inception of Broadway Sacramento (BWS) in 1951, it has become Northern California’s premiere producer and presenter of musical theater as well as the most successful nonprofit performing arts organization in Northern California. Because of Margie Donovan’s leadership, ACB Capital Chapter’s support, and Margaret Hardy/AudioVision’s technical assistance and equipment loan, the BWS launched on April 24, 2010 its first audio-described performance — “Little House on the Prairie” —with overwhelming enthusiasm from the blind and low vision community. In the past ten years, BWS has purchased AD receivers/transmitters; trained audio describers; provided tactile pre-show presentations; trained ushers and volunteers how to work with people with vision disabilities; offered braille and large print programs; and through the “Arts Alive” summer venues, performance tickets are discounted to encourage the attendance and education of new audiences, including those with vision loss.
Special Recognition Achievement in Audio Description — Performing Arts: Mary Hanks
For many years, Mary Hanks has single-handedly ensured that performances by the Houston Grand Opera (HGO) are accessible via audio description. She has described over 200 opera performances; for years she was the only HGO audio describer. She describes, recruits, trains, and schedules, expanding accessibility services all over Houston. Her work with the Houston Museum District Association resulted in the addition of blind accessibility services at five institutions. Consumers of Mary’s top-notch audio description services will often travel hundreds of miles to hear her; other describers consult with her regularly. And she does it all as a volunteer.
Achievement in Audio Description – Media: Disney+/The Walt Disney Company
From its launch, Disney+ has included audio description with its offerings — the only streaming service to have such a large number of titles available from inception. They have committed to adding audio description tracks to all original programming and have audio-described their extensive back catalog (going back to the late 1920s). Titles such as Snow White, Dumbo, and Cinderella now allow children who are blind or vision impaired and their parents to more meaningfully enjoy all of the classics that have enchanted sighted audiences for decades. They maintain high standards for the audio description scripts they produce, and the quality of the voicing and audio mix is outstanding. Disney+ and, in particular, its employee Mirka Pavlikova, has done considerable outreach to the blindness community, asking what they would like to see and encouraging their feedback.
Achievement in Audio Description – Visual Art/Museums/Visitor Centers: Michele Hartley
Since 2010, Michele has served as Media Accessibility Coordinator for the Harpers Ferry Center (HFC), an interpretive media design center for the National Park Service (NPS) system. Michele provides technical assistance, training and resources to promote media, exhibits, videos and publications that are accessible and universally designed. She has made presentations throughout the NPS for the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Access Board and for conferences hosted by organizations such as the American Council of the Blind (ACB), American Alliance of Museums, Preservation Maryland and the Kennedy Center’s Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD). She is a past recipient of the Roger Kennedy National Parks Fellowship from George Washington University. During her tenure as the Acting Deputy Associate Manager of HFC’s audiovisual arts department, she was responsible for improving accessibility of park movies by providing audio description, captions and assistive listening. She developed audio-described exhibits for NPS sites and used automatic triggers to provide more independent access for users and facilitated an audio description player option for videos posted on nps.gov. Over the past 6 years, she has been the NPS liaison to the UniD project, an initiative that produces audio-described park brochures. She is an important advocate for inclusion of user-experts to ensure effective and inclusive communication.
Achievement in Audio Description – International: VocalEyes (U.K.)
VocalEyes is today considered the leading AD company working in the UK theater, museum, and heritage sectors. Recognized with funding by Arts Council England since the beginning, VocalEyes has audio described around 2,300 productions across the country — an average of 180 annually — covering drama, comedy, musicals, opera, ballet, dance, circus, children’s theater, outdoor festivals, even fireworks displays. Clients include Shakespeare’s Globe, Donmar Warehouse, Royal Court and the Almeida Theatre. The group describes commercial West End shows (Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Hamilton) and touring shows. Honed with the involvement of blind and partially sighted users and professionals, VocalEyes provides a 10-15 minute recorded audio introduction a week before the performance, containing information about the set, characters and costumes, venue access information and contact details. On performance day, a touch tour on stage is an opportunity to explore the set, props and costumes, and meet members of the cast. Large print and braille cast and creative lists are provided. In 2012, VocalEyes established a museum, gallery and heritage program which includes live tours, recorded guides, training courses for venue staff in visual awareness, guiding and audio description. Clients include The British Museum, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Wellcome Collection, Natural History Museum, Ferens Art Gallery, and Windsor Castle. Recent research projects include partnership on a Ph.D. study with University of Westminster into Museum Audio Description and Describing Diversity, in partnership with Royal Holloway, University of London, an exploration of the practice of describing human characteristics, such as race, gender, disability and body shape as part of theater audio description.
Special Recognition Achievement in Audio Description – International: Audio Described Aotearoa Ltd. (New Zealand)
In 2020, many countries, New Zealand included, went into COVID-19 lockdown. Theaters, museums and galleries closed their doors. Audio Described Aotearoa (ADA) immediately sought opportunities to continue audio description. The Royal New Zealand Ballet was planning to live stream recordings of their recent performances, so ADA collaborated with them to offer audio description. So far, over 1,500 people from around the world have tuned into the audio-described ballet. Led by blind consultant Paul Brown and trained audio describer Nicola Owen, ADA was established in 2014 as a company providing audio description services across New Zealand. In 2019, ADA trained the first two Maori (indigenous New Zealand) audio describers and simultaneously audio-described in English and Maori languages — a world first. In 2019, ADA provided description for the English National Ballet’s Giselle as part of the Auckland Arts Festival and made the audio description scripts available for the ballet to use for subsequent overseas tours. In 2020, we encouraged the Auckland Arts Festival to purchase the audio description script for the ballet Snow White to recognize the work of Will McRostie of Description Victoria in Australia and further promote international collaboration between audio describers. ADA has introduced audio description for opera, chamber music, children’s theater, contemporary dance, civic events, and gallery/museum tours.
Dr. Margaret R. Pfanstiehl Memorial Achievement Award in Audio Description – Research and Development: United Airlines
United Airlines is the first U.S.-based airline to offer the most extensive suite of accessibility features on their in-flight seatback entertainment system, which accommodates any level of visual disability, as well as provides support for hearing and mobility-impaired passengers. Not only are all of the features and functions of the system available using text-to-speech and screen magnification, but passengers can easily find movies and other entertainment with audio description. The accessible IFE system is currently deployed on United’s 787-10 Dreamliner aircraft, and will continue to be deployed on other aircraft moving forward. United clearly understands that their customers have different needs, and they have worked to accommodate everyone’s access needs within the in-flight entertainment system. United offers the largest selection of movies and TV shows with audio description and closed captioning — 54 titles — of any U.S. airline. A variety of settings and features are available to accommodate different levels of vision, such as:
- Exploration by touch: This function describes each item aloud as the individual moves their finger across the screen
- Adjustments: Change the text-to-speech, voice volume, speed, and pitch
- Text sizing: Allows for accessing three different text sizes for easier visibility
- Magnification: Enlarges a portion of the screen for easier visibility
- High-contrast text: Makes it easier to read the text on the screen
- Color correction (beta): This setting enables different color settings to account for types of color blindness
- Color inversion (beta): This setting inverts color on the screen so it’s more comfortable for those with sensitivity to brightness. Clark Rachfal of Alexandria, Va. reports, “I flew from Sydney, Australia, to Los Angeles, California via United Airlines on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. While navigating the seatback display, my wife discovered that the United in-flight entertainment system on this plane had built-in accessibility features. This was my first time using this screen reader and interface. In addition to navigating AD content, this screen reader gave access to the passenger light and flight attendant call button. These are features that can be independently activated and deactivated by a passenger who is blind with a specific gesture on the screen.”
Barry Levine Memorial Award for Career Achievement in Audio Description: Matthew J. Kaplowitz
Matthew Kaplowitz is CEO and Chief Creative Officer, as well as President and Director of Technology and Innovation for Bridge Multimedia, the largest producer of audio description for network and cable TV in the United States. But it is the work that he has done on behalf of blind and multiply disabled children that most resonates: he has produced songs and chants that blind preschoolers can use when learning various orientation and mobility skills. Matt also worked with National Braille Press to create descriptions for braille/print children's picture books. Blind parents reading these books to their sighted children can share in the joy of the pictures. The most familiar title in the series, Dragons Love Tacos, is accompanied by songs and lyrics in English and Spanish. A much sought after presenter at educational conferences, Matt addressed the American Council of the Blind’s Audio Description conference in 2018, and the Kidsscreen Summit Conference in 2019. Matt is also an Emmy, Peabody, and Grammy award-winning producer, composer, and sound designer, as well as an assistive listening systems engineer and A/V systems integration specialist for ADA-compliant installations for public spaces.
The Achievement Awards are made to individuals and/or organizations for outstanding contributions to the establishment and/or continued development of significant audio description programs. The Barry Levine Memorial Award for Career Achievement in Audio Description recognizes an individual for outstanding contributions to the field of audio description over an extended period of time, leading, inspiring or providing significant service to others.
“Audio description uses words that are succinct, vivid, and imaginative to convey the visual image from television, film, DVDs, theater, museums and many other settings,” stated Dan Spoone, president of the American Council of the Blind. “The organizations and individuals honored with these awards are among the leaders in description. They help make so many aspects of our culture accessible to people who are blind or have low vision; they deserve this special recognition.”
Additional information about ACB’s Audio Description Project is available at: www.acb.org/adp.
About the American Council of the Blind
The American Council of the Blind is a national membership organization. Its members are blind, visually impaired, and fully sighted individuals who are concerned about the dignity and well-being of blind people throughout the nation.
Formed in 1961, the ACB is one of the largest organizations of blind people in the world, with more than 70 state and special-interest affiliates and a nationwide network of chapters and members spanning the globe.
For more information about the American Council of the Blind, contact: Eric Bridges, Executive Director, American Council of the Blind, 1703 N Beauregard Street #420, Alexandria, VA 22311; phone (202) 467-5081 or toll-free, 1-800-424-8666; or visit the website, www.acb.org.
Joel Snyder, PhD, Director, Audio Description Project, ACB