Accessibility is complicated. For those who use wheelchairs for mobility, all required specifications for access are detailed in the ADAAG, Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines. For those of us with sensory disabilities, a few simple rules apply. First, everything that is spoken should be presented in American Sign Language by a qualified interpreter. Second, everything that is presented visually should be audio described. The ADAAG again specifies under what circumstances ASL is required. We produce a YouTube show, and we provide ASL as a courtesy since we want our show’s content to be available to our brothers and our sisters who are deaf. However, ASL is not required, and I don’t know of any other program, even on a national network, which voluntarily adds ASL.
Now comes the matter of blindness. Here the second rule applies, everything that is visual should be spoken. This opens the vast world of the visual and can offer wonderful details that make any experience come alive for those who can’t see. In the real world this is not hard to do, it merely requires telling anyone you are with, who has low vision or who is blind, about the visual wonder you perceive instantaneously with your eyes. It will also depend on the person with whom you are speaking. They may like a lot of detail, they may want you to focus on colors, or people’s faces, or they may not want you to describe anything at all. I have heard it said by more than one authority that over 90% of information is conveyed through vision. Sadly, the ADA is vague and not very helpful about audio description. However, in 2010, President Obama signed the Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) while all TV and YouTube programs have open captioning allowing anyone to read the text that being spoken, the CVAA only requires 50 hours of primetime programming per calendar quarter to be audio described. An additional 37.5 hours of programming anytime during the day is also required every three months. That is a laughably small number of hours of accessible programs for those of us with visual disabilities.
But to be fair, most people who have been deaf from birth have English as a second language and ASL as their primary language. So open captioning does not meet their needs either.
This essay, however, is about audio description, although I felt the view from thirty thousand feet would be helpful to explain how audio description, or A.D., fits into the big picture of sensory disability access.
I have a few stories from my own life experience which can make the power of audio description come alive most clearly. I am a writer. In my case I have applied this ability in many forms including poetry, books, essays, song lyrics, and most importantly for this essay, theatre pieces. I have composed music for a musical but did not write the theatrical content. I have collaborated with a play-right on a musical for which our efforts blended, and I have written a complete musical including songs and the theatrical production. In all three cases, it was only when I heard the audio description provided by an audio describer that the show became most understandable to me.
A.D. for live theatre, movies and television is a specialized skill. The describer drops critical visual elements into open spaces in a show’s dialogue, and it must be timed exactly, and never compete with the spoken content within the performance. An actor, director, writer, or poet might find it natural to create the short sentences for the audio description element of a video recording or live show. For those interested in helping with making YouTube videos accessible through A.D., a free program called YouDescribe through www.ski.org offers anyone the chance to add A.D. to YouTube. Like Wikipedia, YouDescribe has democratized A.D. and will greatly expand accessibility for people like me. Professional training for A.D. is offered, but if a price barrier exists, an interested and articulated volunteer can study audio description and provide the service.
Back to how A.D. works in live theatre, A.D. broadcast technology is available that allows the audio describer to provide her service through a closed-circuit radio broadcast heard by audience members with visual or cognitive disability through a special receiver, which is distributed before the show and then collected afterwards by an organization, such as a blindness agency or accessible arts volunteer organization. Several services are available to create and record audio description tracks for video or film productions. I produced the first audio described music animation in 2004. I wrote with my producer the audio description tracks and recorded it as a separate recording for my music animation Assistive Technology Boogie. I will play it for you at the end of this show. But I digress – I want to explain the power of A.D. to you.
In 1986 I was on the board of Services for Independent Living (SIL) in Cleveland, Ohio. SIL was exploring using a musical theatre piece produced by United Cerebral Palsy entitled Doin’ the Reality Rag as a fundraiser. SIL could license the script for one sum of money and for a second, larger sum, license use of the original music. Funds were limited and since this undertaking was a fundraiser, the board committee decided to license only the script since I offered to write new music for the show. I set to work and over a month wrote two entirely new pieces of music and wrote new topical lyrics for ten ragtime songs in the public domain, such as “Ragtime Cowboy Joe”. My thinking was the hired pianist could find the music for the older songs, and a music copyist would transcribe my new songs for her or him and the Dixieland Pit band for opening night. I recorded separate cassette tapes containing the needed songs for each cast member. I had several musical rehearsals with the cast and attended a few rehearsals that included both, music, and script. I thought I knew the show pretty well. The show raised over $40,000 for the community organization! Following opening night within The Ohio Theater, Cleveland’s largest theater in restored Playhouse Square, Doin’ The Reality Rag ran for six weeks in several community theatres, and I attended three shows. Audio description was a new concept in theatre and only the third show, which I attended, offered audio description. Amazing! Now I understood the sight gags, the non-verbal actions and gestures that were funny, and the actors’ craft which made the show come alive. Audio description had filled the empty breech where sight lives and given me the critical information which everyone else automatically knew through the instantaneous magic of vision.
Another example. In 1994 I collaborated with a play-right from the University of Arizona in Tucson, concerning a play written with and for actors from Third Street Kids, an inclusive theatre program for young people with and without disabilities, for which I was musical director. I lived in Ohio and would fly to Tucson six weeks a year to write new songs with the group and perform with them regionally and internationally. We conducted a weekend workshop during which the troop with our direction came up with the plot for a musical theatre piece entitled Reckless Grace. The play-right met with them in my absence and developed the script. Understanding the concept, I pulled a few songs from my extensive repertoire of original work for their use, and then wrote a few new songs in writing workshops with them. I attended a dress rehearsal and then the grand opening which was audio described. Once again, the show burst into my consciousness fully formed with all of the silent appearances on stage, facial expressions and other subtle visual elements that made the show live and breathe. Without audio description I would have missed so much in this production with which I was so integrally involved.
My final example is the most profound. In 1999 I finished work on a musical for schools entitled How Big is Your Circle? I had written every actor’s part, stage blocking or actor’s movement, and even some suggestions of facial reactions. This show was produced in collaboration with the School of Fine Arts in Willoughby, Ohio. I worked with their teenage acting program who read through my script and made some critical suggestions that led to its re-write and improvement. The show’s score included vocal and string orchestra parts. All toll, sixty young people were involved in the production, including actors and musicians. I attended the dress rehearsal and then the world premiere. I sat in the front row with my A.D. earpiece in one ear as the curtain rose on my production, which ultimately be performed by many schools in an attempt to overcome bullying and the exclusion ridicule and violence, which is all too commonplace against devalued students. Although I had written the show and even given stage direction, the director and actors had given Circle a life of its own. The actors inhabited their parts with their unique stage personalities, and the director had given her own touches to the show’s development in ways I would never have considered.
A few months later I saw the show produced by Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theatre as an evening activity during a TASH International Meeting. WOW! Once again, I was watching a wholly unique performance, thanks to audio description which gave my new musical something entirely new. In each of these cases I might have sat in the theatre as if blindfolded were it not for the brilliant interpretation of the visual aspects of life theatre thanks to a trained volunteer who whispered visual elements of the show through my A.D. earpiece.
Thanks to modest progress through Federal mandates and voluntary efforts, some movies are audio described in addition to some television programs on national networks – but far too few. Live theatre, motion pictures and regular television programs are always made better through audio description. While its benefit was conceived to assist those of us with visual disabilities, A.D. can also assist people with cognitive disabilities and learning disabilities, as well as elders, who enjoy hearing the matters of consequence, interpreted by the describer that they might miss due to modestly reduced vision. But, so too, are the most mundane aspects of daily living made better through A.D., my wife will often tell me about what a waiter is wearing or how a television host wears her hair or the style of her eyeglasses. These little offerings bring elements of the visual world to me so that I might more completely experience whatever we are doing, watching. In addition, she might tell me about the décor of a restaurant, the style of architecture of a historic building, or the nature of a forest through which we are driving.
What should be audio described? Anything and everything that brings delight, interest, color, or zest to any experience whatsoever. Naturally, the companion to one who is blind, would exhaust themselves if they audio described everything, but it should not be a chore. It is part of the informal social contract so that blindness does not exclude one from the wonders in the lights of the world of sight. Give it a try. You will improve your powers of observation, increase your vocabulary, and learn to articulate the very things that give you pleasure through observation.