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Audio Descriptions in Media: Unlocking a World of Benefits

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates, there are at least 2.2 billion people worldwide who have near or distance vision impairment.

For people who are blind, have low vision, colour blindness, or other vision impairments, much of the web content still remains inaccessible.

This is why it’s necessary to take measures to ensure that your web content is accessible to billions of people with vision impairments, by following the laws set by Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and international standards set by Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Creating Accessible Web Content for People with Visual Impairments

Creating accessible content means making web content perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust for all users, including individuals with disabilities.

In order to make web content accessible to people who need such adjustments, creators should include the following elements:

  • ALT text (or alternative text) for images - text used to describe and explain the meaning of images for individuals using assistive technology tools, such as screen reader software
  • Colour contrasts - sufficient colour contrasts between the text and its background for users with low vision and colour blindness
  • Audio descriptions - voiceover narration used to provide information necessary for understanding the content of visual media for people who are having troubles with processing visually presented information.

Why Are Audio Descriptions Important?

Typically, audio descriptions are defined as verbal depictions of key visual elements in a piece of pre-recorded media, including movies, TV shows, online media clips, and instructional videos.

The same goes for company videos such as recordings, meetings, corporate training, introductory videos, etc.

An audio description is often also referred to as a video description, described video, or English descriptive audio.

Audio descriptions are carefully crafted to provide an immersive viewing experience so that people who are blind and people with visual impairments can understand and enjoy visual media as much as the sighted audiences.

In addition, audio descriptions can be hugely useful to individuals with cognitive disabilities who may have difficulty interpreting what is happening visually and/or prefer to receive information in auditory form.

They also offer flexibility to people who wish to enjoy content without being confined to one spot, as well as to those who are studying a foreign language and may use audio descriptions to enhance their content comprehension.

What’s more, audio descriptions can help with language development for children and individuals with autism. They can help children improve their language skills and broaden their vocabulary. They can also help users with autism comprehend certain emotional and social cues in actions and facial expressions they may otherwise have difficulty understanding.

Finally, including audio descriptions is required by law and can help you lower the risk of potential accessibility lawsuits, which have reached record numbers in 2023.

In two of the most high profile cases regarding audio descriptions, Netflix had to agree to make its video streaming content accessible, and AMC theatres had to offer its customers devices that describe visual elements in films during their theatrical screenings.

How Do Audio Descriptions Work?

Standard audio descriptions consist of snippets of descriptive narration that are played during the silent pauses between lines of dialogue and important sound effects, song lyrics, etc. in a piece of visual media.

Those snippets can be very short (only a few seconds) or quite long (up to minutes at a time), depending on the length of the silent pause.

For instance, an audio description of a comedy clip may only have a few seconds to offer basic information necessary to understanding the context of the scene, such as:

  • “Later, in the classroom…”
  • “Harry falls down.”
  • “Annie smirks as she squeezes past David.”

On the other hand, an audio description of a horror clip may have long stretches of silence to paint a full picture of a particular scene, such as:

  • “The monster emerges from the shadows as Sheryl hides behind the column. She sneaks a glance at the monster as the moonlight glistens against its razor-sharp claws…”  

As an example of an audio description, here’s a clip from the 1994 Disney animated movie The Lion King (you can also follow along by reading the transcript included in the video description field):

Another example is this audio-described version of a training video on Text to Speech function (you can also follow along using the transcript in the video description field):

These two clips can give you an idea of how to write an audio description for different visual media formats.

Best Practices for Incorporating Audio Descriptions

Here are some of the best practices to keep in mind when incorporating audio descriptions in a piece of visual media:

Include Only Important Information

Don’t attempt to include every single detail, but only the key elements of the video that are absolutely necessary to its understanding.

Those may be actions, movements, mannerisms, gestures, entrances and exits, settings, facial expressions, costumes, etc., and other information that may not be clearly understandable from dialogue or sound effects alone.

For example, if a character makes a humorous remark about another character’s hairstyle, make sure to briefly describe that hairstyle so that the joke can land as intended.

Mind the Timing

Make sure that the narrative descriptions are appropriately timed and do not step over any lines of dialogue, important sound effects, song lyrics, etc.

As a general rule of thumb, there should be approximately a second between the end of a description and the beginning of dialogue, as well approximately a second between the end of dialogue and the beginning of a new description.

If it’s absolutely necessary to override the dialogue, do so over the least consequential lines.

Keep a Consistent Style

There are certain stylistic elements of an audio description you should stick to in order to keep it consistent and enhance user comprehension: use present tense, active voice, neutral style of delivery, and objective third person narration without interpreting, editorializing or employing offensive language.

Write simply, clearly and concisely, without relying on jargon or technical terms. Expand your vocabulary and avoid repeating the same words or phrases. Don’t use the term “we see.”

Choose an Audio Descriptor Carefully

Ensure that the voice of the person doing audio description is audible, understandable, distinguishable from the other voices in the video, and that it in no way interferes with relevant information in the original audio.

The audio descriptor’s voice should be dynamic, confident and authoritative, and match the tone, pace, style, and mood of the content. The focus should always be directed to the content rather than the descriptor’s voice.

Don’t Overdo the Descriptions

You don’t have to fill every single second of silence. For example, a comedy is often dependent on timing. A character may take a beat in answering a question that can serve a humorous purpose. Speaking over that moment of silence can ruin the timing and humour for the viewers who are blind.

Sometimes You’ll Have to Anticipate Action

Descriptions can’t always be perfectly synchronized to the picture. Depending on the length of available silent pauses, at times they will have to precede or follow the action in order to fit all the important information and still leave room for dialogue and important sound effects, song lyrics, etc.

Especially when it comes to comedy and horror, you might have to slightly anticipate action in order for the listeners to experience intended emotions at the same time as the sighted audience.  

Read more about WCAG guidelines for creating and incorporating audio descriptions in your media content.

Subly can help your audience understand the visual media content by creating audio descriptions for you. With Subly, you can bring your video content to life with narrative descriptions of physical actions, scene changes, on-screen text, and much more.

In addition, Subly can assist you with your other web accessibility needs including captions and subtitles, translations, transcripts, and colour contrasts.

Investing in web accessibility can help you increase your audience, improve your SEO, avoid the risk of accessibility lawsuits, and create a better user experience for everyone regardless of ability.

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