But what does she look like? A commentary on subpar audio descriptions

With more and more movies having audio descriptions, I’m watching more and more. And I’m… not satisfied.

What are audio descriptions?

A short explanation for readers who are not familiar with a term “audio description”: audio description is a narration that provides information about visual elements so that the element can be perceived by a blind or visually impaired person. I have consciously chosen such a general definition. Although audio description is usually associated with additional narration integrated into a movie soundtrack or a recorded (or sometimes—though formally incorrectly—even just written) description of a piece of art, any audible description provided to a blind person can be considered an audio description. Professional audio descriptions may be provided for any kind of visual media or live event: a movie, theatre play, opera, sports event, etc. Without audio descriptions a blind person is not able to learn what is happening. Sometimes one may guess, but the better the movie is, the less one can guess on one’s own. And of course, guessing is not a solution.

Recall any scene from your favourite movie and imagine you cannot see it. How much would you understand from just the audio? For some scenes, you may be surprised how much you’re able to visualise; for others, you may not understand anything at all. Imagine a final combat between the good and bad characters in a movie which ends with one of them being thrown from the roof of a building. Nothing is said; the audio is just the sounds of the fight and, after that, the finale music. You have no way to learn what has happened. By the sounds, you may guess that one of the characters has probably fallen, but you don’t know which one.

A movie without audio descriptions is not accessible. A movie with audio descriptions is not accessible either, but it’s a completely different level of inaccessibility (a more philosophical one).

Please note that in this article, I’m focusing on audio descriptions for movies provided by commercial providers such as video on demand (VOD) platforms. Online services where everyone can publish videos are not the topic of this article (except for the section “Why does video content get audio descriptions?”), but it is a good place to remind you that AccessibilityOz regularly conducts accessibility audits of online video players, and you can find the results on our site.

Why does video content get audio descriptions?

There are various reasons why videos get audio descriptions, and it does matter why the video content provider decides to audio describe it:

Sheer goodwill

Unfortunately, this is probably the rarest reason. There are people who just want to be inclusive and are eager to spend more time and resources on making their videos more accessible. In this group are people and organisations which do not have direct financial interest or legal obligation to provide audio descriptions. Note: this does not mean that groups listed later in the article do not have goodwill; being obligated to add audio descriptions does not mean that one does not want to do it.

Professional activity

There are non-profit organisations that make video content accessible and available for persons with visual impairments. Quite often, these organisations provide the best audio descriptions.

Legal obligations

In multiple countries, there is a legal obligation to provide audio descriptions for some video content. The degree (how much content must be accessible) and the subject (sometimes the law refers only to public providers and sometimes to all big providers) of this obligation varies from country to country.

Social pressure

Social impact should not be underestimated. Big video content providers are expected to add audio descriptions for their products. If they don’t, they may be met with criticism from disability rights organisations, and it may influence how the company is perceived by its audience. Social impact really matters.

Problems with audio descriptions

Except for people who audio describe their video content just for the sake of inclusiveness, it is only the professional organisations that have an interest in maximising the quality of their audio descriptions, if they offer this as a service. Companies which are obligated to add audio descriptions often go to the bare minimum of effort, and this is reflected in the quality. However, I want to stress that the quality of commercial audio descriptions (often made by 3rd party providers) is usually not bad. It is often just insufficient. And the quality is not the only issue.

Digital accessibility of interface

It is obvious that before one can hear audio descriptions, one must be able to turn them on (not to mention being able to select and start the movie first). This is not always easy, because video interfaces are not blind-user friendly. It is not very surprising—blind watchers are just a small fraction of the general video content audience—but still, accessibility testing and inclusive user testing would help to avoid many issues. In most cases a blind user must put much more effort in to use the app than a sighted user. A typical issue is video controls, which are often difficult to display and then to use, especially when the app forcibly switches the device to horizontal mode when the user is used to navigating in portrait mode. On one VOD platform on Android, I was not able to turn on audio descriptions at all. I had to ask a sighted person to do it for me (fortunately the setting was saved for all movies). Audio descriptions that cannot be turned on by a blind user is a really interesting solution indeed.

Another common problem is the limited time to use controls. Often, before one locates the controls on the screen, they disappear.

These problems discourage many blind users from using controls, for example to go back when they missed something. It may take so much time going backward or forward that the benefit is not worth the effort. It is better to focus on the movie and miss as little as possible. The blind user experience seems not to have been taken into account in the design of most video platforms and players interfaces, and it’s a big pity.

Availability of audio descriptions

If you speak English, you are lucky. Your choice of audio described movies is relatively large. But if you like foreign cinema, even if you speak English, your choices become very limited. On the platforms I used, except for some very popular productions, it was difficult to find a non-English language movie with English audio descriptions. If you don’t speak English, you may expect that some movies in your local language have audio descriptions, though they may not be available until weeks after the movie is released. My personal experience is frustrating, because many interesting movies, which are neither in English nor in my native language, do not have English audio descriptions, though they have English subtitles and, frequently, English dubbing.

Quality of audio descriptions

Though I wrote that the general quality of commercial audio descriptions is not bad, errors can be found. Recently, while watching a movie in my native language, to my surprise, I heard that a character was speaking old Slavonic language. It was of course true, but there was no need to audio describe it – all watchers (sighted and blind) could hear the character. Deaf watchers should get information about the language spoken by the character in captions. Such an error is very basic and rather rare. The most typical issues are descriptions that are so general that they are almost useless. While writing this article, I had a discussion about audio descriptions with AD professionals and users. One person complained that a typical description of a person is for example “young woman with dark hair” or “a tall man”, and she would like to learn more. I share this discontent, though I’m aware that there is often not enough time for a longer description. However, if you hear “rocket launches” as a description of a spectacular rocket launch, perhaps discontent is exactly the way you should feel.

Audio descriptions should not be over descriptive, but quite often they describe very little.

What is missing?

Even really good commercial audio descriptions share one feature with poor productions. All important information is provided at the start of the movie. It is the rule for full-length movies and for almost all series. It is only at the beginning that you can learn if the movie is live action, animation, stop motion or something else. Usually, this information is basic, and when the movie is live action, it is not given at all. Other information, such as the movie’s style and/or filming techniques, is usually not provided (at least in case of movies I’ve watched). Characters are described at their first appearance. In theory, it makes sense and is according to audio describing rules, but there are two problems:

  • At the start of the movie, you get a lot of information on which you need to focus, and it is easy to miss details which later are either important or interesting;
  • In the case of characters, you don’t know which characters are important – all characters are equal, which means you don’t know to whom you should pay attention.

In my case (perhaps other watchers are more attentive), the result is that I never know what main characters look like, not even their hair colour. After I realize that the person on screen is a main character, their description had been provided relatively long ago. Moving the movie backward, as I mentioned, is usually rather tedious. Aside from just characters, I once watched three episodes of a series to then learn (from my girlfriend, who looked at the screen of my phone) that I was watching an animation, which made me switch my imagination to a different mode.

Can it look different?

There are methods to make audio descriptions more satisfactory, and they are used by some non-profit organisations. You may prepare a description of the movie style (colours, mood, the way the scenes are filmed, etc.) and either add it to the movie or provide it as a separate recording so that people who are not interested do not need to listen to it. You may prepare a detailed description of main characters and put it under a general description of the movie. These solutions are inexpensive, simple and useful. There are, of course, more complex methods as well, but since it is not a direct field of my profession, I’ll leave it for the experts.

Why VOD providers have limited audio descriptions and what is the solution?

My thesis is that VOD providers do what is required by law or what is expected by their audience. In order to include extended audio descriptions, they would have to redesign their players’ interfaces and add functions that would be used only by blind watchers. All that means added costs. Should VOD providers be expected to improve the quality of their audio descriptions? I’d say yes – better audio descriptions mean greater equality. The more we write and speak about the importance of good audio descriptions and interfaces, the higher the chances our expectations will be converted into social pressure or even law.

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