1500 Blind people walk into a bar…

1500 Blind people walk into a bar…

What happened next??

They ordered a round of drinks and had a good time, just like everyone else. No joke. They wanted tasty adult beverages and to kick back with friends and family. I mean, seriously! It’s Vegas, baby!

Last week I had the enormous pleasure of attending the American Council of the Blind’s (ACB) annual conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. As a certified audio describer, I was participating in the Audio Description Project (ADP), brushing up my skills and learning about the latest legislative, technical, and educational issues facing the visually impaired community. But more importantly, I was hobnobbing with my customers; or more accurately, my customers’ customers.

Audio Description Content: Connecting all audiences to the full tour experience

In addition to interpretive and multi-language mobile media tours, we also offer audio described content for museums, visitor centers, and the various films and digital media their exhibits require. In case you don’t know, audio description “translates” visual content such as exhibit panels, photos, artifacts, text, films, etc. into verbal images so blind visitors can fully experience the venue.

Attending the ADP provided a rare opportunity to meet and talk to a significant number of consumers who use—and depend on—audio described content to enjoy the sites of interest they visit. And let me tell you: It was—no pun intended—eye opening.

Reactions, Insights, and Controversies Surrounding Audio Described Tours

Here are two of my favorite highlights from the trip:

First, ACB paired volunteer mentors (blind consumers of audio described tours) with the 50 or so ADP describer participants, something they had never done before. When we were introduced to our mentors (we actually had excess volunteers, and I had two all to myself!), they erupted into a standing ovation. They referred to us repeatedly as “superstars,” “heroes,” and “life savers.”

Each person described how what we do changes their lives in ways great and small. A few comments included:

  • “I’m able to participate in the office conversation because I too ‘saw’ the latest movie/television show/exhibit that my colleagues had.”
  • “I can have a normal date with my wife without having to constantly ask ‘What’s going on?’ and ‘What are they doing?’ every five seconds.
  • “I can laugh with my nieces at the same time during a play or TV show because I experience it with them. I am a part of their life; a part of life.”
  • “You make part of my world ‘normal.’”

These are accomplished, professional people with families and responsibilities. Still, audio description changes lives; I am proud of what we do and take our responsibility to these patrons seriously.

Second, one of the controversies of audio description has to do with “neutral” description and what it means. On one hand, the describer should not insert his or her subjective point of view into the description. Consider an emphasis on this aspect a “traditional” approach. On the other hand, it is the describer’s responsibility to convey the original artistic and creative intent of whatever is being described, focusing on an integrated, creative process. After all, the consumer is presumably seeking the same experience as any other consumer. Whether it’s theater, film, arts, history—all visitors, simply because they are human, seek emotionally engaging experiences.

The controversy involves where to place the emphasis. As a writer, director, and producer of creative interpretive content, my preference is to lead with the integrated approach. Unfortunately, over time, some purchasers and producers of audio description (not consumers) have insisted on the traditional and ignored—or worse, rejected as inappropriate—creative integration.

Standards meant to guide and assist describers have taken on a “delivered from on high” status that throws humanity’s baby out with creativity’s bathwater. Under this notion, the describer’s perceived neutrality takes precedent over both the original creator’s intent and the consumer’s legitimate desire to be engaged. All too often, a non-integrated, non-creative approach neuters the creative intent and robs the blind visitor of the human experience they are seeking, be it to laugh, cry, learn, dream or simply lose oneself in the emotional world of an unfolding story.

Discussing the art of audio described content with its real-life consumers provided numerous reassurances that they share my views on the utmost importance of creative engagement.

Research Proves Everyone Wants the Same Tour Experience

As it turns out, research is now on my side, too! Dr. Deborah Fels of Reyerson University in Toronto has conducted research for the better part of a decade and published numerous papers on the subject of audio description and the consumer experience. Out of a number of findings presented at the conference, the two that spoke directly to my heart and mind are these:

  • People who are deaf or blind want to be entertained rather than informed
  • Entertainment is about having fun and being engaged

Audio description does not need to be—as Dr. Fels’ research indicates—dry, whispered, adjective-free droning in the ear. Integrated, creative approaches, such as first-person narration, “color commentary” style, or even a dedicated character developed from the outset, offer blind or low-vision consumers a richer, more entertaining experience.

To see and hear some examples from projects studied by Dr. Fels in the film, television, and theater world, click here. I’m especially fond of the Hamlet and Odd Job Jack samples.

Description should be developed alongside the creative concept. Word choices and delivery should match the content and maintain emotional integrity. And while no one is suggesting we should devolve into a subjective free-for-all, creativity and interpretation have a place in audio description.

Special Thanks

Many thanks to my mentors Jeff and Leslie Thom, who took me under their wing and protection; who shared insights and experiences; and who, simply by making a little room for me in their world, expanded my thinking and opened my eyes to new, marvelous ways of being. I can’t thank them enough.

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Stasha is the President of Q Media and the creative force within the company. Since Q Media’s inception in 2002, Stasha has written, co-written, directed, and/or produced content on every project.

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