Some Blue Sky Thinking About the Potential of Audio Description – Lynne Davis

Listen to the audio recording here.

I first heard about audio description in the 1990’s in Victoria, where live audio description of theatre was already well known among vision impaired people, thanks to the pioneering work of Marjorie West and her volunteer describers. I found the idea interesting, but at the time I had good central vision, could see both stage and screen, and was not fully appreciative of the value of audio description. Fast forward some years and, with no sight remaining, I rapidly became a huge fan. In the beginning, my experience was limited to audio described DVD’s, occasional film screenings, and then live theatre performances. Finally in 2020, after years of campaigning and a couple of false starts, at last it was possible to watch (some) television this way.

Jonathan Craig has written a well researched and interesting article on the history of the campaign for audio described television in Australia, which was published in the July 2020 issue of this newsletter, and I don’t intend to revisit that history here. Instead, what I’d like to do is to indulge in a bit of ‘blue sky’ thinking about the enormous potential of audio description for enhancing the experiences of blind or vision impaired people in Australia.

My feeling is that there has been limited innovation and development in the area recently. BCA in particular, has mounted active campaigns for audio description in cinemas and on television, and to some extent these have been successful. But, as we have discovered in so many areas and on so many occasions, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. I’m not sure how embedded audio description is in cinemas around Australia. I do know that my local independent cinema acquired the necessary equipment several years ago but never advertised this fact, and on enquiring I was told that “It wasn’t ready yet”. End of story. And recently, on venturing back to the movies after a covid-induced hiatus, I asked at my other local and was told, somewhat proudly it seemed, “Oh no, we don’t have that here”. I’ve also tried talking with the Sydney Film Festival about the need for audio description of the mainstream festival films, not just a few films in a special section of films featuring disabled actors, directors and subjects. I think the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) has included a small number of audio described films among its mainstream offerings, but so far there has not been any movement in that direction in Sydney. So, although our campaign was good, long and persistent, I’m not so sure that we achieved many lasting gains in the cinemas.

It’s probably too early to judge the success of audio described television in Australia right now. At present it is limited to a prescribed number of hours (14) per week on ABC and SBS, nothing is mandated or offered on the commercial free to air channels, and there is a modest offering on the streaming services. And, at present, if you miss an audio described program on ABC or SBS and want to watch it on the catch-up service, you will not be able to watch it with audio description. There is still a lot of room for improvement in the area of television, and this campaign still has a long way to run. The publicly funded channels invite feedback on the service via their dedicated communication channels, but my experience of these has been that they are very sluggish in responding. And we need to keep firmly in mind that this public funding is not yet guaranteed. It is much less embedded than captioning is for people who have hearing impairments.

At least in Sydney, (the city where I live) the other form of audio description available on a regular basis is live description in the theatre and opera, however these are often in a limited number of venues and for a limited range of performances. If you need audio description, you most definitely do not have access to the full range of performances – and it is rarely available in smaller, less mainstream or established companies. In the mainstream companies the live service is provided by volunteers, not paid professional describers. There are not many blindness services currently based on this model of provision, and I think we should be examining the implications of its continued existence – especially whether it limits the potential for development and expansion of the service.

I would certainly like to see live audio description expanded to include concerts and other musical events. Usually, when I say this, the response is “but you listen to music, you don’t look at it”. In fact, there’s a great deal of visual information involved in most music events. For a long time, I’ve been a subscriber to symphony concerts and in the beginning, being sighted, I assume that my experience was similar to that of most other members of the audience. Since I’ve been blind, I know that it is not. These are some of the things I’d like to know about the concerts I go to: Is the full orchestra on stage, or only a part of it? How are the members of the orchestra, the conductor and any soloists dressed? Is there a choir and, if so, how large is it? Is it made up of men/women/adults/children? How are they dressed? Are there any unusual features of the way the stage is laid out, the orchestra is arranged, props or scenery are used? Is there any text visible? Is there any screen onto which images or information is or will be projected? What is happening when there is a wave of applause? At the beginning of the concert, is this because someone is coming on stage? At the end, who is being applauded? What is the layout of the concert hall, and where am I sitting in relation to the exits? Lastly, I’d like to know something about the audience. How are people dressed? Is there anything to note about the demographics?

I realise that this list is a bit idiosyncratic – but these are the things I always used to look at, and in their absence my experience is diminished. I’m certainly not asking that the describers talk over the music which I came to listen to – but that’s a cardinal rule of audio description for any kind of performance or situation, isn’t it?

The final bit of blue sky I’d like to discuss in this ramble through the byways of audio description, and I think the most innovative in terms of what’s currently on offer, is individualised description. I started to think about this a few years ago, at my daughter’s wedding. She chose the full bells and whistles variety, and at the beginning of the day I found myself sitting at the front of an unfamiliar church as an organ burst into music, the other members of the congregation emitted various sounds (admiration/nostalgia/surprise – who knew?), and my invisible daughter and husband proceeded up the aisle. It would have made such a difference to me if I could have had the company of an experienced describer, someone who was doing their job rather than being asked for favours. Since that time, I’ve had many occasions on which I’ve reflected on this topic and discussed it with others. I even read an article some years ago, I think from Canada, about audio description being arranged for a wedding attended by a number of blind people – not exactly individualised description, but a recognition of the same fundamental need to be a full participant rather than a bystander or observer at life’s significant moments. I realise that the kind of innovation I am floating will require not only campaigning, but policy shifts of various kinds – funding, cost recovery and training and certification, to mention a few. But, if we don’t envisage what the world could be like, it is unlikely to change – and BCA has always been wedded to the idea of changing what it means to be blind. Our deaf peers have accomplished much in this space, and may offer us something of a road map, or at least a few stakes in the ground which might help us on our way.

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