by Joel Snyder, PhD, Director, ADP
I read with great interest the report Describing Diversity published by VocalEyes in the United Kingdom, a highly regarded group dedicated to developing, sustaining and promoting audio description of the arts (VocalEyes is the winner of the Audio Description Project’s 2020 International Achievement Award). Describing Diversity is an exploration of the description of human characteristics and appearance within the practice of theatre audio description. In partnership with Royal Holloway, University of London, the report suggests the need for a process of exploration of when and how we should describe the personal characteristics of the diverse range of characters that appear on stage, and in particular, the visible, physical markers of race, gender, impairment/disability, age and body shape.
A press release regarding the report notes that “The research involved the whole community involved in audio description: blind and visually impaired users of the service, actors, other theatre professionals, and audio describers working around the UK and the world, through an online survey (June to August 2019), in-depth interviews (January to March 2020) and collaborative workshops (April 2020).”
It goes on: “In 2020 theatres and other cultural organizations have faced challenges beyond what anyone could have imagined just a year ago. With the coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdown, theatres closed their doors, and now face more permanent closure or re-opening in a very changed world. Meanwhile, the world has also been shaken by the death of George Floyd and the global response of the Black Lives Matter movement and increasing calls for the decolonization of institutions and long overdue changes to society. How theatres, museums and other organizations and their leaders respond will shape their future and that of the whole arts and cultural sectors.
“The project was in part the result of an acknowledgement that VocalEyes describers do not reflect the wider society, as they are predominantly, though not exclusively, White, non-disabled and cis-gendered, and often much older than the actors on stage.”
Quite appropriately the report calls for “increased understanding and dialogue between the dynamic industries of theatre and audio description. It is only through working together that we can strive to create the equitable and inclusive audio descriptions that both audiences and theatres deserve, and that audio describers wish to deliver. … The crux of the project is how diversity characteristics are ‘translated’ by audio describers — and the ever-present issue of how describers themselves determine the relevance of visual data on behalf of the blind and visually impaired audience.”
The report’s findings are summarized most cogently in a quote included in the report by Tehmina Goskar, Director of the Curatorial Research Centre: “We all build our perceptions of difference and otherness inside our minds. So how do we verbalize regularly unverbalized diversity in a very public domain? I believe that the Describing Diversity report is seminal. It has a huge relevance for people beyond theatre and audio description. We are at a stage where seeing, describing and being confident to recognize the spectra of race, disability, age and gender in all of our intersections is an essential part of dismantling the narrow and now very tired default of cis, White non-disabled supremacy.”
In the context of this report, permit me to offer my own thoughts, first by way of a perspective on how audio description (AD) consumer consultants can most effectively contribute to the development of AD technique. The involvement of AD consumers in the development of audio description programs is always of significant benefit. I maintain, however, that the most valuable contributions come from consumers who have a solid understanding of how audio description is most meaningfully offered. For instance, consider how a consumer with minimal awareness of the fundamentals of audio description might respond to the open-ended query: “What would you like to have described?” Often the response will be: “Everything!” But experienced AD consumers and practitioners know that the best description involves making choices that help communicate key visual elements. As I often state in AD training sessions: “Sometimes, description is about what NOT to describe.”
In the same way, if an AD consumer is asked a narrowly focused question about whether he/she would like to know the race of an individual or character being described, the response, invariably, will be “Of course!”
But why should race necessarily be given priority over other visual aspects that may have greater pertinence to the image/film/play/exhibit being described?
We can’t “see” race. Is a man with dark complexion and nappy hair an “African-American”? How can we possibly know that man’s heritage? (I spent a full month training describers in South Africa. During one session, a White gentleman, native to South Africa, asked if he became a naturalized American citizen, wouldn’t he be “African-American?”)
And, of course, if we denote the race of individuals/characters who are Black or Asian or Hispanic, are we not obligated to say “White” in characterizing every individual who presents as a White person? To not do so could seem inherently racist.
AD exists 1) in service to AD consumers, and 2) in service to the work being described. Our choices of what to describe and how we describe should be based on our awareness of blindness/low vision, the needs of AD consumers, and our understanding of the work being described. Thus we describe in ways that support the content — in the film “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?,” we would be doing a disservice to our listeners and to the film itself by not choosing to describe Sidney Poitier as a Black man and Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Houghton as White.
As to the describers themselves, my belief is that the best audio describers — regardless of race, disability status, age, or sense of personal identity and gender — bring an awareness of the importance of objectivity in describing “what we see.” They strive to avoid their own inherently subjective viewpoints, i.e., as the diarist Anais Nin wrote: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
But my point is simply that there is no reason why an African-American describer cannot credibly describe a play that is focused on “White” issues … and vice versa.
The “Describing Diversity” full report is available at https://vocaleyes.co.uk/?request_file=14091.