by Joel Snyder
(Editor’s Note: Joel Snyder is the president of Audio Description Associates, LLC, and the director of ACB’s Audio Description Project. He is known internationally as one of the world’s first audio describers, making theater events, museum exhibitions, and media accessible to people who are blind. Since 1981, he has introduced audio description techniques in over 44 states and 61 countries. In 2014, the American Council of the Blind published his book, “The Visual Made Verbal – A Comprehensive Training Manual and Guide to the History and Applications of Audio Description.” It has been published in Portuguese, Polish and Russian, and as an audio book by the Library of Congress in the United States. A Spanish version is under development.)
Over the last 38 years, it has been my great honor to work with audio description, a narrative technique that makes visual images accessible to people who are blind or have low vision.
The history of audio description has been traced from prehistoric times, ancient Greece and on to the present, observing how description has been employed regularly if not professionally by companions and family of people who are blind or have low vision. And then came its development as a professional assistive technology and service.
As a formal process of translation and accessibility, audio description is about 40 years old — if one counts as its genesis in the literature as the landmark 1978 master’s thesis by Gregory T. Frazier, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman: An All-audio Adaptation of the Teleplay for the Blind and Visually Handicapped.”
But audio description is an international phenomenon.
In the United States the first ongoing audio description service was begun by Dr. Margaret Pfanshtiel at her radio reading service The Metropolitan Washington Ear in 1981 in Washington, D.C. I’m quite proud to have been among that small group of audio describers working with Arena Stage and then branching out to other theaters in D.C. Later, we conducted the pilot for the WGBH experiment with description — that later became DVS or Descriptive Video Service, founded by Dr. Barry Cronin.
In the early 1980s, Japanese broadcasters conducted a trial of description for broadcast television — and, as noted earlier, in the 1970s, a master’s thesis was written on audio description by my friend and colleague, the late Gregory Frazier, founder of Audio Vision, a San Francisco-based audio description service, still quite active.
And description was being discussed within the hallowed halls of our federal government in the 1950s and 1960s by a gentleman to whom I refer as the grandfather of audio description — Chet Avery, who at the time was a grants specialist for the Department of Education.
I have been fortunate to work in more than 60 countries helping to establish audio description programs for theater, cinema and broadcast television, and making presentations on description at academic conferences. It should be noted that in many countries, particularly where English is not the dominant language spoken, description is not studied as a form of access, per se, as part of a disability studies program at a university. It’s considered a kind of translation — it’s part of the audio-visual translation programs in language and interpretation departments. It’s a kind of subtitling. Unlike most light-dependent people, people who are blind or have low vision speak a language that is not dependent on the visual. Consequently, audio description has been embraced as a new field of study in academic programs that encourage the exploration of audio-visual translation. Universities in the following nations now offer master’s and even doctoral programs where one can focus on audio description: the U.K., Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, South Africa, Germany, and Austria.
Audio description is being practiced on every continent (except, to my knowledge, in Antarctica). It can no longer be considered in its infancy — perhaps it is in its adolescence, with new techniques on the horizon, broadening access to new media for increased numbers of people who are blind or have low vision.
A new international survey reveals that audio description is an important assistive technology worldwide providing access to people who are blind or have low vision to the arts and many other visually rich events.
The survey (69 countries and the Pacific Disability Forum) finds that:
- 67% of respondents said that AD is available in the respondent’s country;
- cinema, television, live performing arts, and DVDs lead the list of the type of AD experiences available (followed by museums, the web, smartphones, in educational settings and in visitors’ centers);
- almost 45% said that AD is required by law (64% of those respondents reported that it was required for broadcast television); and
- 99% of respondents said that they believe AD or more AD should be available.
The World Blind Union and ACB are long-time supporters of the growth of AD. Both groups are eager to learn more about the use of AD by people who are blind or have low vision in its member nations, including some of the barriers to its use. (The World Health Organization reports that an estimated 253 million people live with vision impairment.)
After leading several days of audio description training in Moscow, I came home with a new insight into the arts and access. My colleagues there taught me that audio description, access to the arts, must be a part of any democracy. In the United States, accessibility generally is not yet viewed as a right, as a reflection of the principles upon which our nation was founded. People in Russia are wrestling with economic circumstances attendant to a shift in government that accommodates democratic elements, yet to them incorporating democracy means “access for everyone.”
Over time, I think that all countries will better understand the power of audio description to change lives. With the greater development of audio description worldwide, I believe that we will have an opportunity to appreciate the value for everyone of building access for all.