Audio Description: Making the Language of Pop Culture Accessible

Unless you’re viewing a silent film, movies and television are mediums that rely on us being able to consume them with both our eyes and our ears. Closed captioning and subtitles bridged the gap for people who are deaf, deafened or hard of hearing, but tools to assist people who are blind or have limited vision have been generally ignored. Instead, this audience is left with huge gaps of information when onscreen action, graphics or special effects are shown without supporting context and dialogue. 

This is where audio description comes in. Also known as described video, this service provides a description of what is visually represented on screen as narration. This narration plays between dialogue and important sound effects, similar to a radio play. It’s a different form of editing, but maintains the importance of communicating succinctly, accurately and with attention to detail.

The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) was the first broadcaster to produce audio description for television. Starting with their anthology series American Playhouse in 1988, they soon branched out to other programs. In 1993, the US federal agencies were required by an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to make all their film or video and multimedia available with audio description. But audience members with low vision or who were blind would have to wait until 1997 before the first theatrical films, The Jackal and Titanic, would be available with audio description. 

However, audio description in television has only become more common in the last five years. This was spurred on by the Twenty-first Century Communication and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 that President Obama signed into law. The mandate, which took effect in 2012, requires the top nine broadcasters in the nation’s top 25 markets to create at least four hours of audio description for their programs per week.

This has led to an explosion of media available with audio description. Watch any prime-time show and you’re likely to hear an announcement beforehand saying, “This program is available in described video.” Streaming services have also been fairly good about offering the service. 

It’s somewhat fitting that one of the first shows Netflix would offer in described video would be Daredevil, a show centred on the heroic actions of a man who is blind. But audio description isn’t just for new media; post-production companies hire writers and editors to update older shows and movies for the visually impaired. 

Furthermore, audio description will soon be even more widespread in Canada thanks to the new Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) Broadcasting Regulatory Policy that was drafted in March 2015. While all nonexempt broadcasters will be required to provide at least four hours of audio description a week, starting in September 2019, the CRTC will require that certain broadcasters provide described video for all their prime-time programming. This includes every show broadcast between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m., every day of the week. Bringing the language of media and pop culture to diverse audiences is an exciting and rewarding new field. Media shouldn’t be a private club, but something we can all enjoy.

Gillian White

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