Audio description is a way of engaging people who are blind more completely with the arts. Its practitioners have a way with words—we provide a verbal version of the visual, the visual is made verbal, and aural, and oral. Using words that are succinct, vivid, and imaginative, we convey the visual image that is not fully accessible to a segment of the population, and not fully realized by the rest of us—sighted folks who see but who may not observe. (Estimates by the American Foundation for the Blind reveal that over 21 million Americans are blind or “have difficulty seeing even with correction.”)
I've worked with audio description since its beginning as a formal, ongoing service, developed in Washington, DC at Arena Stage in 1981. Since that time, I've experimented with a range of venues and applications for the technique. Not long ago I conducted a workshop in New Haven with day care workers and reading teachers on what I think represents a new application for audio description—literacy. We developed descriptive language to use when working with kids and picture books. These books rely on pictures to tell the story. But the teacher trained in audio description techniques would never simply hold up a picture of a red ball and read the text: "See the ball." He or she might add: "The ball is red—just like a fire engine. I think that ball is as large as one of you! It's as round as the sun—a bright red circle or sphere." The teacher has introduced new vocabulary, invited comparisons, and used metaphor or simile—with toddlers! By using audio description, a teacher can make these books accessible to children who have low vision or are blind and help develop more sophisticated language skills for all kids. A picture is worth a thousand words? Maybe. But the audio describer might say that a few well-chosen words can conjure vivid and lasting images.
I was honored to lead a team of describers who provided description—for the first time— for Sesame Street. I received a letter from a blind parent of sighted children who for the first time could follow along with her kids the antics of Elmo, Bert, Ernie, and all the other denizens of Sesame Street.
A true story: a blind fellow visiting a museum with some friends was once asked, “Excuse me, but what are you doing in a museum? You can’t see any of the exhibits.” His response? “I’m here for the same reason anyone goes to a museum. I want to learn, I want to know and be a part of our culture.” His inability to see shouldn’t deny him access to our culture, and I believe it the responsibility of our arts institutions to be as inclusive as possible. It’s all about access to our culture and that is everyone’s right. There simply is no good reason why a person with a particular disability must also be culturally disadvantaged.
In the United States the principal constituency for audio description has an unemployment rate of about 70 percent. I am certain that with more meaningful access to our culture and its resources, people become more informed, more engaged with society and more engaging individuals—thus, more employable.