Don’t forget the audio descriptions for your videos

Published September 8, 2022

In the current information landscape, video is the dominant content medium. While this is apparent in the entertainment world (streaming services, video podcasts, etc.), it's also the case in the business world. According to industry data, over 80% of large businesses use video content for training and marketing purposes. While this is an exciting development, it's important to ensure the accessibility of video content.

There are several ways to make video-based content accessible for individuals of varying ability levels. The most ubiquitous way is through closed captioning. Text-based subtitles depict a  video’s spoken words.  

The recent surge of subtitles has opened the door for individuals with differing levels of hearing abilities. However, it doesn’t do much for individuals who can’t rely on sight. This is where the audio description comes in.

What is an audio description?

Audio description uses audio narration to describe the events of video-based content. An audio description details the events seen in the video content using narration.

Click through to an example of an audio description used in the opening scene of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Audio descriptions are written to ensure the most succinct distribution of information possible. According to the Described and Captured Media Program, audio description narrates the following aspects of a program: 

General- General description refers to information essential for the viewer to follow, understand, and appreciate the intended learning outcomes of a program. An excellent way to think about the general description is to include details whose omission would confuse or mislead the audience.

Characters- Audio description of characters consistently identifies a program’s characters by name. The narration will identify a character by a prominent attribute until a name is provided. When relevant, the narration will describe characters using physical characteristics such as race, but only when relevant to the program.

Scenes/Scene Changes- Audio description will convey scene changes if relevant to the unfolding understanding of a program. If time permits, the narration will describe montages of images essential to the video's overall theme.

Passage of Time- Like scene changes, the passing of time is indicated only when it is essential to comprehend or appreciate a program’s content. 

Audio description benefits

An obvious benefit of audio description is that it helps individuals with visual impairments consume video content. Whether an individual is blind or losing sight with age, audio descriptions offer a chance to participate in video content consumption. However, people with visual impairments aren’t the only beneficiaries of this kind of service. 

One of the facets of autism is that it can make visual cues and facial expressions hard to understand. Audio description can aid in the interpretation of a program's visual elements.

The audio description has the potential to aid individuals with differing levels of intellectual processing. Much of the population learns visually; about 30% benefits from auditory learning. Audio description tracks help reinforce the information ]these viewers might gain from a program.

Foreign language learners also benefit from the availability of audio descriptions. Watching foreign shows or movies is an increasingly popular supplement for language learning. By seeing the connection between words and the described actions, foreign language learners can deepen their linguistic and phraseological understanding of a language.

Legal Precedent

Accessibility laws in the United States mandate the availability of audio descriptions in video content. Government entities fall under Section 508 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. Section 508 states, “Where ICT displays or processes video with synchronized audio, ICT shall provide audio description processing technology…”

Further legislative calls for audio description come from the 2010 Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA). According to the FCC website, the CVAA updated all accessibility laws from the 80s and 90s to fit with 21st-century technology. Part of this update includes the use of audio descriptions.

Furthermore, in 2020, the FCC expanded the requirements of the CVAA. The FCC determined that there would be an increase in the number of media markets subject to audio description rules.

What Streaming Services provide Audio description?

As more companies recognize the need to ensure their content is accessible, they are working toward providing the necessary tools. Now, it’s easy to access audio descriptions. To date, several popular streaming services offer audio description features with their programming. These services include Netflix, Apple TV, Hulu, Disney+, and HBO Max joined the ranks just last year. In each service’s general settings, viewers can find an option to turn on audio descriptions. Please note that the audio descriptions can be device-dependent for some platforms. Make sure your device provides access to these settings before making any purchases.


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