Dr. Joel Snyder

Educator, advocate and pioneer in audio description
Headshot of a man.

Photo by Clinton Brandhagen

Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts—this is Art Works—I’m Josephine Reed

Joel Snyder: Audio description is a way of making the visual verbal. And what I mean by that, of course, is using words, using language, that is succinct, vivid, imaginative, to convey the visual image that's not fully accessible to a significant segment of the population: people who are blind or have low vision. And it's a separate audio track that is accessible to people who want to access it.

Jo Reed: That was educator, advocate, and pioneer in audio description Dr. Joel Snyder.  You just heard Dr. Snyder’s brief definition of audio description—let me fill it out a bit: as captioning or signing gives people who are deaf or hard of hearing access to media and performing arts, audio description provides a similar service to people who are blind or have low vision. 

Audio description provides a narration of what a show is depicting visually, and it must do so without stepping on dialogue or musical cues. And the use of AD is removing barriers to culture for blind people. It was first used in theater and then moved to public television in the 1980s. Now AD is being heard throughout artistic disciplines from theater to film to streaming, from museums to dance to opera--- And Joel Snyder has been there from the beginning: wearing many hats—as an audio describer, voice talent, innovator, and educator--  running  the Audio Description Project, for American Council of the Blind. And in the interests of full disclosure, Joel Snyder also worked here at the arts endowment from 1982 to 2002.  It’s not every day you get to talk to a real pioneer, someone who helped create a new way of making the arts accessible—so I was interested in how Joel Snyder began in audio description. 

Joel Snyder: Oh, goodness. Well, my background is in theater and voicework, going back into the '70s, so that gives you an idea of how old I am. I began recording talking books for the Library of Congress. And also during that time, I became a volunteer reader for a group right here in Washington, D.C., the Washington Ear, which provides readings over a subcarrier of an FM frequency. It provides readings of the daily newspaper, magazines, novels, that sort of thing. So, one of my assignments was the Washington Post on Sundays, and, of course, a newspaper is full of all kinds of images and graphics and photographs, so we would describe images in an informal sense, and there was really nothing called "audio description" at that point. But then, in 1981, it just happened that that same organization, the Washington Ear, its founder and director-- Margaret Pfanstiehl, who was a blind woman, and a fellow named Chet Avery, who was a blind gentleman working at the Department of Education, both of them were on an access committee at Arena Stage, right here in Washington, and Arena was a really-- a forward-thinking entity. In those days, there wasn't that much thought given to accessibility to people with disabilities, but they had just installed an assistive listening system, which is ubiquitous now, of course. It helps people here, who are hard of hearing. Well, when Chet and Margaret heard about that, they could see the value, and they wondered, "Hmm. If that's just a matter of a microphone on stage, amplifying the lines, couldn't someone offstage hold that microphone and describe images, using the pauses between bits and pieces of dialogue or critical sound elements; describe the elements of action, of costumes, of scenery, for folks who are blind or have low vision?" And Arena Stage, to their credit, gave it the go-ahead. And Margaret Pfanstiehl went back to the studio and grabbed me and about three others, and we began to hammer this out. Well, what would we do? How would we do this? What would we call it? And we came up with "audio description." And that summer, summer of '81, the first instance of audio description for live theater happened. That was a production of Major Barbara, at Arena Stage. And I do want to add, though, just to tie this off, Jo, at the same time-- just about the same time, in the late '70s-- a wonderful fellow named Gregory Frazier, the late Gregory Frazier-- he also had the same kind of idea. And he wrote, as part of a master's thesis at San Francisco State University, the very first published material research on how you would do this. So he published the first research material, and then later went on to develop something called AudioVision, in San Francisco, which exists to this day-- very much like the Washington Ear-- providing description for performances in the Bay Area. So it was almost simultaneous on the two coasts, when this began percolating.

Jo Reed: Okay. And before we go on, about what percentage of the population are we talking about here?

Joel Snyder: The numbers I use come from the American Foundation for the Blind, saying that there are over 32 million Americans who are, quote, "either blind or have trouble seeing, even with correction," unquote. And that's significant. That's upwards of eight to ten percent of the population. And then, of course, add to that, Jo, people with learning disabilities, people on the autism spectrum, people who are learning a different language; in this case, learning English, for instance. They're able to hear the language, just as with captions they're able to see language. It helps build literacy. It raises the level of sophistication, I think, with regard to language.

Jo Reed: I know this isn't the point. This is done for people who are blind or who are sight-impaired, but nonetheless, for those who can see, it raises visual literacy, too, I would think.

Joel Snyder: It really does. I'm so glad you mention that, Jo, and that you're tuned in to that, because sighted folks, we see, but we rarely really observe. How many times do you go to a movie, you like it, so you go to see it again, and then, "Oh, my gosh, I didn't see that the first time"? Had they had the audio description on, perhaps, they would have noticed it, because it's our job, as audio describers, to bring out those critical elements that oftentimes are just missed by, certainly, somebody who's blind. But it's also great for a sighted person. If you're in the kitchen making a sandwich, and the television is on in the living room, you don't miss a beat, <laughs> because you can hear what you can't see.  

Jo Reed: I'm interested in the process of creating audio description. Let's take media, for example, for television and film.  there's the description, and somebody needs to write that but then it needs to be voiced. Is this typically done by the same person? Are these two separate entities?

Joel Snyder: Again, Jo, that's a great question. You're right: For media, it has to be written, and then it's voiced; and almost always, those are two different people. It involves careful analysis and research, involving the particular video being shown. We are in service to the people listening, but also to the artist and the art form that we're describing, so we need to understand what a director is doing, what a cinematographer is doing, and first, observe everything that we can possibly see. We learn to become active seers, not passively letting the world wash over us. No, really look; really look, and then edit from that what's most critical to an understanding and an appreciation of the image. Because there's not time to describe everything. The eye takes in far mare than the voice can recount, so we have to be selective. And actually, that makes for better writing, better description, anyway, if we're zeroing in on the essence. And then-- and yes, then it's voiced by a separate person.

Jo Reed: Is there training for this? Do you work with the production team?

Joel Snyder: It's a very involved and a very professional service; it needs to be, especially for media. It's akin to captioning or subtitling, it's akin to sign interpretation, and people that do those kinds of things study it. You know, my PhD is in audio description from the University in Barcelona, because audio description is studied as a kind of subtitling, as a kind of translation; audiovisual translation. So, yes, there's training. And, in fact, I founded, about 12 years ago, the Audio Description Project of the American Council of the Blind, and one of our initiatives is, twice yearly, an Audio Description Institute where we train describers, principally focused on the writing, but we work with the voicing, as well, certainly; the writing of description and what's involved: observation, editing from what you see, the language. How do you come up with the words? What's the best way to come up with the words? So we do those-- at least twice a year, we do a major Audio Description Institute to train describers in the writing, and we're building a certification program, so that just like sign interpreters-- they can be certified by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf-- we want to have a similar kind of process for audio describers.

Jo Reed: Perfect. You’ve been on the stage. You were an actor. You are an actor. I would imagine that when you're the voice talent, recording audio description, it's a different skill set. I've listened to audio description, and it's quite different from being the voiceover on a commercial, for example.

Joel Snyder: Oh, my. It is, and it's quite different from being an actor. You know, actors on stage, they tend to want to be in the spotlight. With audio description, the voice talent is in service to the people listening, and in service to the art form. We're very much in the background. We are not in the production; we are of the production, if you will. Our voices need to be consonant with what's happening on stage, but we cannot be interpreted as being a part of the play. The best compliment a describer can get after a show-- a performing arts piece, or even in media-- is that, "I forgot you were there. You disappeared, because you were seamless with the production." Years and years ago, when all this began, there was so much focus on-- and rightly so, perhaps-- on objectivity; that we not influence, in the writing or the voicing, what the listener will experience. Let them interpret what we objectively describe. And with regard to voicing, that meant everybody sounded like a golf announcer: "Now he moves here, now she moves there. Now they do this, and now they do that." Which unfortunately, goes too far the other way. It renders a track that's just uninteresting to listen to, and is somewhat disconnected from that happy scene, or that sober scene, what have you. So, I talk about "consonance" when I train audio describers, in the voicing, especially.

Jo Reed: Well, why don't we hear an example? You sent me a clip from the film Color of Paradise.

Joel Snyder: The Color of Paradise, yeah.

Jo Reed:  Why don't we just listen to you doing a bit of audio description for us?

Joel Snyder: Well, you know, I'm wondering if it might be even more interesting to hear a bit of the original soundtrack from this movie, The Color of Paradise, 1999-- a marvelous film; but what I do in training is, I let people listen to it and experience it as a blind person would have in the movie theater, with no description. It's a professional film. It has a professional soundtrack. You know, do you get anything from it? It might be fun to just listen to it that way, for as long as you can tolerate it, and then listen to it with the description, if that makes sense.

Jo Reed: Sure. We'll listen to a little bit of both.

Joel Snyder: Okay.

Audio: Nature sounds, water, birds…..

Jo Reed: Okay, so we just heard the one without the description, and you're right: I have no idea what's going on.

Joel Snyder: <laughs> Right. Exactly. Exactly. You know, you hear people say, "Well, there are birds," and people think there's water. They think this, that, the other. "Is that a body being carried? What's going on?"

Jo Reed: Yeah, exactly.

Joel Snyder: And if you were a blind person in the movie theater, you probably would be gone. You would've left the movie theater, because I'm not getting this at all, or you would've been poking your elbow against the-- into the ribs of the person next to you, going, "What's going on? What's going on? What's going"-- and, of course, then everybody around you is going, "Shh, shh, shh, shh! Shh!" You know, so, no description, then it means that that person ends up without access to an important cultural element of our society: film, television, and such. But now, let's add the description track. If we add the description, does it make a bit more sense?

Jo Reed: And here we go.

Audio with Description: Mohammed kneels and taps his hand through the cover of curled brown leaves. A scrawny nestling struggles on the ground near Mohammed’s hand. His palm hovers above the baby bird. He lays his hand lightly over the tiny creature. Smiling, Mohammed curls his fingers around the chick and scoops it into his hands. He stands and strokes its nearly featherless head with a fingertip.

Jo Reed: Indeed, it does make more sense.

Joel Snyder: I think it does. I think it does. That clip, especially-- obviously, there's no dialogue there. Now, that doesn't mean that the describer is free to simply talk and talk and talk. No, they need to let the sounds come through.

Jo Reed: We also get a sense of how rich, visually, this is.

Joel Snyder: Yes, absolutely. And most film these days really is, and we have to be sensitive to that. We don't want to cover any dialogue. We don't want to cover critical sound elements. But I like that example from The Color of Paradise. It didn't have description when it was first screened in movie theaters, but I wrote and voiced the description when it was later broadcast on television.

Jo Reed: Let me ask you this: Are blind people part of the process, at any point, of audio descriptions?

Joel Snyder: They are, and they should be, and they should be more frequently, because this was-- the old phrase, "Nothing about us without us," you know? This was begun by a person who's blind, by people who are blind. It's by people who are blind, for people who are blind. And people who are consumers of audio description, they are oftentimes used as quality control specialists, as consultants on the writing. There's absolutely no reason why a person who's congenitally blind can't be a marvelous master of language, and working with the describer, come up with ways in which to express the visual image with words. Some of the best voice talents in the industry are people who are blind. Some of the best audio editors are people who are blind. So, it's not as frequent as it should be, but I think it definitely enhances the whole process when the consumers of description are integrally involved in the production of description, and in its advocacy.

Jo Reed: Now, you talked about how audio description is different in different art forms, and you began in theaters. So, in theater, what is the process there? How do you prepare the script when it's theater, and it's live?

Joel Snyder: Yeah, yeah. Well, Jo, I like that you used the word "script." And this is a prejudice or a bias of mine, but I think it takes time to really find the right language, and that requires then, ideally, working with the production throughout rehearsals, developing a script that can be voiced. And it shouldn't sound read. When you get to the performance stage, and you're offering the description, I often say half an eye is on the script, and one and a half eyes are on the stage, because it's live, and anything can happen, and you need to be ready for that. Most description in performing arts, still, these days, isn't quite like that. First of all, most is volunteer effort. It's based on, maybe, one or two viewings of the show, and then a few notes are taken, and then the description is offered, essentially extemporaneously, at only one or two performances out of a six-week run. And it's offered via either an infrared system or an FM radio system. So the individual using description receives a little headset and an FM or infrared receiver, and the person doing the voicing is doing so with a Stenomask microphone or a headset, and they have a transmitter, and so it's only heard by the people using the service. Some performances, some videos, have open description. And again, I like to think it can be appreciated by all, really. So, now, with television and film, it's a little different, because with television, this was the marvelous contribution of WGBH and Barry Cronin, in those days in the '80s. They heard about what we were doing at the Ear, and they had us do a pilot project for them. They realized that, for television broadcast, there's a secondary audio program channel -- SAP channel-- whereby a secondary track, audio track, can be delivered. You turn it on or turn it off. It was there, really, for the transmission of Spanish translation, and it's still used for that today, but it's also used for audio description, and that's how folks access description on television these days. And by the way, I mentioned the Audio Description Project of the American Council of the Blind. The website there, that's another great initiative of ours.  You could actually find out, "What's on television right now with description?" Because it's still just a small percentage of the whole...

Jo Reed: And we'll have that website in our show notes, so people can access it.

Joel Snyder: That's great. Thanks, Jo.

Jo Reed: How widespread is the use of audio description throughout the arts?

Joel Snyder: Well, it is growing rapidly. It began with performing arts, but then, once it became more prevalent on television and with film-- with film nowadays, Jo, just about every feature film that comes out has an audio description track, which is accessed in the movie theater. Remember those days when we all went to movie theaters?

Jo Reed: No. <laughs>

Joel Snyder: Yeah. <laughs> You can go to the movies...

Jo Reed: It's been a long time. <laughs>

Joel Snyder: Yeah. You get a headset, similar to what you do in a legitimate theater, if you will, and you hear the description along with the audio track of the film. So it's done that way in the movie theater, but most movie-- most feature films, I should say now, come with an audio description track. So it has grown-- the field has grown, exponentially. There are more and more people, and oftentimes it's captioning companies, who are already providing captions. I started the audio description program for the National Captioning Institute, back in 2002. Captioning companies already have the contacts with the film producers, the television producers, and so it's akin to that kind of postproduction work. In addition to the captions, we would provide the audio description.

Jo Reed: Is there a federal mandate, an FCC ruling, that says X percentage of programming-- and I'm talking about media now-- need to be accessible through AD?

Joel Snyder: Yes, there is. Yes, there is. In 2010, the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act was passed, which, for the first time, mandated audio description on television broadcasts; very small amount. At the time, it was only about four or five hours per week, and only for the top nine broadcasters. Now it's increased to just about seven hours per week, for those top nine broadcasters, in about 70 markets. But you know, there's so much television out there, if you add all that up, it doesn't even come to one percent, is my understanding, my estimation; whereas in the U.K., fully 10 percent of all broadcasts must have audio description. My hope is that, at some point, we're going to be akin to captioning in this country. Captioning, when it was mandated some 40, 50 years ago, the law said, each year, it should go up by a certain percentage. We don't have that yet. Hopefully, we will. So, captioning is at 100 percent now 

Jo Reed: So many of us access film and television through streaming services. Is there a mandate for them to provide audio descriptions?

Joel Snyder: There is no mandate on streaming services to provide description. But what's great is that entities like-- well, Netflix, for instance, probably does more description than any other streaming service. They're right up there with the others, certainly, and in a variety of languages. Initially, they weren't sure. How would this work? Because this is a whole other process. Well, they've learned to embrace it. They really have run with it, So it's not mandated. It doesn't come under the FCC rule; that's only for broadcast television. Even movie theaters, by the way, and performing arts spaces, they are, to a certain extent, covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that's why movie theaters have become more and more accessible. Obviously, if you're a person who uses a wheelchair, you have to be able to get into the space. But once you're in the space, it's got to be programmatically accessible. And that's why, beginning about 10, 15 years ago, movie theaters began to realize, "We're going to have to get films with description, with the captions, because we're going to have to provide those services."

Jo Reed: It would just seem to me that, as media becomes more digital, it's a much easier process to add AD.

Joel Snyder:, I think you're right. I think it is easier in one sense, certainly. There are parameters involved in digital production, as there were in analog production days, certainly. You know, when we all went to digital broadcast of television, the hope was that we could expand beyond just one secondary audio program channel. You know, if a program is being broadcast in Spanish, there's no description, because there's only the one channel. Well, the hope is that, because we're digital now, we can have up to-- I think it's a dozen separate audio channels. It has to do with how the different services access the audio.  Hopefully, that's another way in which audio description will grow.

Jo Reed: And I would also think, given the technology that we have-- that we literally carry around in our pockets now-- I think that really opens so many doors...

Joel Snyder: You know, you're right. In fact, I do many different presentations about audio description. One that I do fairly frequently these days is with a blind man, Petr Kucheryavyy, who works for Charter Communications. They now have a service called Spectrum Access, and it's an app. It's an app that folks download to their phone. The app-- it is actually able to listen to a movie being broadcast in a movie theater, or at home. Once you have that app, you download to it the audio description track that accompanies that film, and the app miraculously pairs the audio description track with the sound of the film. It does it automatically, and it's available to you through your own smartphone then, in your own earbuds. And you can listen to it. The description doesn't have to be on for anybody else in your home. You listen to it, independently. And I see that growing by leaps and bounds, and especially as the Congress and the FCC begins to realize the need for the expansion of the 21st Century Communication and Video Accessibility Act. Really, like I say, captioning is at 100 percent. Why shouldn't description be at 100 percent, as well? And so I see a lot of growth in the future.

Jo Reed: I've heard you discuss, and I'd like you to share, the potential that you've said audio description can offer, when it's part of the creative process from the beginning.

Joel Snyder: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. You know, there are good examples of that. Foremost, perhaps, is Stevie Wonder's one of his music videos became one of the first with audio description built in. It's called So What the Fuss, and it's easily accessible on YouTube. The description is a part of the whole. It was written that way.  And he had the rapper Busta Rhymes voice it, so it was really a part of the whole. I think that I'd love to see that happen more and more in media; certainly, in performing arts. There's a company in New York; used to be called Theater by the Blind. Now it's called Theater Breaking Through Barriers. They've experimented with taking a play; maybe adding a narrator, or adding lines that are descriptive in nature, so that the description is built in. Their every performance is described, basically, right? You don't need to have an added-on layer. It's a little bit like shadow-signing, if you've ever been to a production that's being made accessible with sign language, with the signers on stage with the different characters. Every performance is accessible, with the signer right there in front of you, as opposed to off on the side, on the left or the right.

Jo Reed: Has AD grown with other art forms? And I'm thinking, actually, of dance, which on one hand seems unlikely, but then again, maybe not.

Joel Snyder: <laughs>

Jo Reed: Are we seeing AD offered in live dance performances, for example?

Joel Snyder: We are. We are, and that goes back a little ways, actually. One of the first groups to experiment with audio description-- and I'm proud that I worked with them on this-- is AXIS Dance Company, out of Oakland, California. That's a company that-- they speak of "integrated dance." They have dancers who are all shapes and sizes: dancers with one leg, dancers with no arms, dancers who use wheelchairs. They wanted to make sure their performances are accessible to everybody who are potential audience members, including people who are blind. And developing description for dance is somewhat dependent on, are we talking about a story ballet, which is like theater, in a sense; or are we talking about a more abstract form, where it's about levels and lighting and the directorial intent, that sort of thing? So that certainly makes a difference. Certainly, don't want to step on music. Opera is described, and we're careful to preserve the experience of the sound, to a great extent. But even in dance, too, we oftentimes will have, in theater and in dance, "touch tours," where people who are using the service can actually be on stage after the show, and actually touch props, touch costumes; touch the dancers, if you will-- in an appropriate manner, of course. But even more importantly, the people using the audio description service could move like the dancers, with the dancers, and really get a sense in their bodies of what was happening, visually. And that was just a marvelous way to help make dance accessible

Jo Reed: Okay, tell me about your time at the Arts Endowment.

Joel Snyder: Oh! Sure.

Jo Reed: When were you here, and tell me what you did. It was before I started working here.

Joel Snyder: Yeah! Well, it was a whole other time I was on the staff from 1982 to 2002, always working with arts presenters and multidisciplinary arts. In those days, it was called the Inter-Arts Program, and I was its acting director two or three different times, and working with, principally, arts presenters. And I remember that whole period so fondly. It was a time of tremendous growth for me. But all during that time, I was still working with description, and I became, in a sense, an unofficial member of the staff of what was called, in those days, the Special Constituencies program, and now, of course, led by Paula Terry, working with accessibility and the arts. Now the program is called Accessibility, ably led by Beth Bienvenu, and you know, and everybody that accepts a grant from the NEA, agrees to follow the regulations put forward in Title 504 and in the Americans with Disabilities Act, but sometimes there's much more that people could do to make their programs accessible to people with disabilities, and there's money available to do that--- money to help you do that can be built into a grant application. But it was a wonderful time, and I'm glad and pleased about what I was able to contribute to the funding of presenters, certainly, and other multidisciplinary arts endeavors, but certainly helping Paula, and getting the word out about accessibility.

Jo Reed: And what do you see for AD in the future?

Joel Snyder: Oh, I think it's going to continue to grow.  I think we need to be better at spreading the word about the abilities of people who have, quote/unquote, "disabilities." Everybody has abilities, and we're all using them to the best of our capacity, and folks who are blind, they're doing that, too. They simply need the art form, the culture, to be accessible to them. You know, the social model of disability dictates that a person is disabled only to the extent to which society doesn't accommodate their individual needs, so that if a building doesn't have a ramp, well, it's inaccessible, isn't it, to somebody who uses a wheelchair. But as soon as that ramp is there, or the building is designed with the ramp, the disability goes away. So there's really no good reason why a person with a physical disability must also be culturally disadvantaged. I don't think so. I think it's beholden on all of us who run public institutions, and certainly funded with public money, to be as inclusive as possible, to involve all of the public to a greatest extent as possible.

Jo Reed: Okay. And I think, Joel, that is a great place to leave it. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.

Joel Snyder: Thank you, Jo.

Jo Reed:  You just heard educator, advocate, and pioneer in audio description Dr. Joel Snyder.  Check out some of resources that are available at the Audio Description Project, at the American Council of the Blind.

You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. If you like the show, follow us on Apple podcasts and leave us a rating, it really helps people to find us. I’m Josephine  Reed, stay safe and thanks for listening.


Educator and advocate Joel Snyder is one of the pioneers of audio description which makes the visual verbal for people who are blind or have low vision. Just as captioning or signing gives people who are deaf or hard of hearing access to media and performing arts, audio description provides a similar service to people who are blind or have low vision.  It’s a specialized skill: AD must provide a narration of what a show is depicting visually, and it must do so without stepping on dialogue or musical cues. And there is no question: the use of AD is removing barriers to culture for blind people. And Joel Snyder was there from beginning. In the podcast, Snyder takes us back to the origins of AD, the differences in providing AD for live-theater or dance as opposed to film, television, or streaming, how technology is shaping the future of AD, and his work at the Audio Description Project at the American Council of the Blind.

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