The Origin Story

Our history, our ideals, and our plans for future development

The UniDescription Project

The box of brochures that came in the mail was like a packet of seeds that planted these ideas, but the UniD (“UniDescription”) Project officially started in the fall of 2014, when principal investigator Dr. Brett Oppegaard moved from Washington State University Vancouver to University of Hawai‘i. During this transition, he was working with Michele Hartley at Harpers Ferry Center on accessibility issues related to printed National Park Service products, such as the “Unigrid” brochures, and started envisioning the potential of mobile technologies to remediate and translate those static texts into acoustic forms. Once in Manoa, he began collaborating with two scholars who have spent their careers focused upon issues of accessibility, Dr. Megan Conway and Dr. Thomas Conway, then both serving in the UH Center on Disability Studies. For source material, Hartley sent the UH-based research team the aforementioned suitcase-sized box, filled with hundreds of brochures. And that's when this adventure really took off.

For a bit of additional background, in the late 1970s, designer Massimo Vignelli worked with Harpers Ferry Center staff to create the "Unigrid System," upon which all National Park Service brochures since have been based. The self-described "information architect," who also helped to design the innovative New York subway map, favored a modular system with a subtextual grid that facilitated order and consistency.

Our web-based project – with direct connections to Harpers Ferry Center, the National Park Service, those brochures, and those basic beliefs – has been called "UniDescription," or "UniD" for short, in tribute. That name should be pronounced like "unity," serving as both an abbreviation of the more wonky original label of "UniDescription" and as an inspiration for our mission, which is to:

Bring unity (through UniD) to the world of audio description.
Michele Hartley, Media Accessibility Coordinator for Harpers Ferry Center, the design hub of the National Park Service, gave this dynamic overview of The UniDescription Project at the Fedstival conference on Sept. 22, 2017.

Media Coverage


  • 2022

    The UniDescription Project was picked for this national award in recognition of our efforts "to support individuals who are DeafBlind, blind or have low vision and make the society more accessible and inclusive through ... services, practices, products and workforce diversity efforts."

  • 2021

    Oct. 26-28, 2021: D8 featured more than 100 participants and several new international partners, such as National Parks UK (which manages sites in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales), the Royal National Institute of Blind People (England), Nigeria National Park Service, and the Canadian Council of the Blind. We collaborated once again with our U.S.-based partners in the U.S. National Park Service, and we also brought into the mix The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., one of the nation’s premiere performing arts facilities. In addition, we supported bilingual creation of Audio Description in English, French, Spanish, and Ojibwe.  

    D8 included these 19 sites: 

    Feb. 9-11, 2021: Our Descriptathon 7 was focused on park sites in the Midwest but also included for the first time partnerships with the Helen Keller National Center and the Blinded Veterans Association, adding to the expertise already offered in our Descriptathons by the American Council of the Blind. We also welcomed back for the second time both U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and Parks Canada, who once again joined the teams from the U.S. National Park Service.  

    D7 included these sites: 

    This $45,000 NPS grant helped to continue and expand the UniD research project, especially toward building Descriptathon 8 (focused on sites in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest).

    This $50,000 Google grant helped to continue and expand the UniD research project, especially toward building Descriptathon 8 (focused on the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest).

    This $296,000 NEH grant supports research in three specific genres, about describing people, objects, and maps.

    Oppegaard, B. (2021, April 7 - 10). Descriptathon lessons learned: The tool is only an instrument; it needs to be played to have power [Poster presentation]. Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), online. 

    Oppegaard, B. (2021, April 17). On the Horizon of 2021: Future projects and directions [Panel presentation]. Hawaii Museums Association Conference (HAC), Honolulu, HI.

    Oppegaard, B. (2021, June 5-9). No research tool available, kinda no problem: Bliss and bootstrapping of build-it-yourself [Workshop presentation]. Society for Technical Communication 2021 Technical Communication Summit Conference & Expo (STC), online.

    Oppegaard, B. (2021, July 11-15). What does he/she/they look like? Gender-defining audio description in self portraits [Paper presentation]. International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR), Nairobi, Kenya / online.

    And, ...

    Koirala, S., & Oppegaard, B. (2021, July 11-15). Academic origins of audio description: A historiography of the American School [Paper presentation]. International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR), Nairobi, Kenya / online.

    Oppegaard, B.Griesemer, H., Hartley, M., & Rachfal, C. (2021, July 21). Audio description in the out of doors [Panel presentation]. Audio Description Project Conference (ADP), online.

    Oppegaard, B. (2021, August 1). The UniDescription Project [Keynote address]. The Best in Heritage: Projects of Influence, Dubrovnik, Croatia, online.

  • 2020

    Aug. 18-20, 2020: Our Descriptathon 6 was focused on park sites around the National Mall in Washington, D.C., but also included for the first time both U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (like NPS, also under the U.S. Department of the Interior) and Parks Canada (the first international collaborator in a Descriptathon).

    That included these sites: 

    This was a major organizational undertaking, over many months, involving more than 200 hours of new programming, plus hundreds of additional hours of content development. This new website version not only offered updated aesthetics and usability, but it also offers many new technical affordances.

    The American Alliance of Museums awarded the UniDescription Project its Gold award for Research & Innovation, with the following acknowledgment:

    The UniDescription Project: Increasing Empirical Understanding of Audio Description with People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

    University of Hawaii at Manoa

    “This proof-of-concept project shows the possibilities for museums to make their stories accessible. By including free and open source tools for audio description, it has the potential to be a game changer for accessibility of heritage content.”

    Sajja Koirala

    Sajja Koirala of Honolulu, Hawaii holds a bachelor’s in psychology, a master’s in social work, a certificate in women’s studies, and a graduate certificate in disability studies. She is currently pursuing a PhD in communication and information sciences at the University of Hawaii. Her research interest includes media accessibility and audio description. Sajja has been working as a research assistant on the UniDescription Project since 2017, and has played an instrumental role in audio-describing the brochures of around 100 US national parks. She has been an active member of the Hawaii Association of the Blind (HAB) for the past 9 years, where she serves as the chairperson of the contact committee, and regularly participates in various community activities organized by HAB. Sajja has worked as a student writer for her college’s student publication, and is a former radio talk show host. She has volunteered for the Center on Disability Studies at the University of Hawaii, and at Helping Hands Hawaii, where she worked closely with people with various disabilities. Sajja also mentors younger members who are new to the organization, as well as actively participating in advocacy efforts in support of all people with disabilities.

    Achievement in Audio Description – Visual Art/Museums/Visitor Centers: Michele Hartley

    Since 2010, Michele has served as Media Accessibility Coordinator for the Harpers Ferry Center (HFC), an interpretive media design center for the National Park Service (NPS) system. Michele provides technical assistance, training and resources to promote media, exhibits, videos and publications that are accessible and universally designed. She has made presentations throughout the NPS for the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Access Board and for conferences hosted by organizations such as the American Council of the Blind (ACB), American Alliance of Museums, Preservation Maryland and the Kennedy Center’s Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD). She is a past recipient of the Roger Kennedy National Parks Fellowship from George Washington University. During her tenure as the Acting Deputy Associate Manager of HFC’s audiovisual arts department, she was responsible for improving accessibility of park movies by providing audio description, captions and assistive listening. She developed audio-described exhibits for NPS sites and used automatic triggers to provide more independent access for users and facilitated an audio description player option for videos posted on nps.gov. Over the past 6 years, she has been the NPS liaison to the UniD project, an initiative that produces audio-described park brochures. She is an important advocate for inclusion of user-experts to ensure effective and inclusive communication.

    This $50,000 Google grant helped to continue and expand the UniD research project, especially toward building Descriptathon 6 (around the National Mall in Washington, D.C.).

    This $10,000 NEA grant was aimed at creating an artistic (as opposed to the typical utilitarian) version of Audio Description around The Goldsworthy Walk in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, CA.

    This $50,000 NPS grant helped to continue and expand the UniD research project, especially toward building Descriptathon 7 (focused on sites in the Midwest).

    Oppegaard, B. (2020). Unseeing solutions: From failures to feats through increasingly inclusive design. In J. Majewski, R. Marquis, N. Proctor, & B. Ziebarth (Eds.), Inclusive digital interactives: Best practices, innovative  experiments, and questions for research (pp. 219-242). Washington, D.C.: Access Smithsonian, The Institute for Human Centered Design, & Museweb. 

    Conway, M., Oppegaard, B., & Hayes, T. (2020). Audio description: Making useful maps for blind and visually impaired people. Technical Communication, 67(2), 68-85. 

    Decker, D., Hartley, M., Bloomer, R., & Oppegaard, B. (2020, July 3-10). The National Park Service and Audio Description Research [Panel presentation]. Audio Description Project Conference, online.

  • 2019

    March 5-7, 2019: Our Descriptathon 4 was focused on park sites in (or near) Manhattan and Boston.

    That included these New York sites: 

    • African Burial Ground National Monument 
    • Castle Clinton National Monument
    • Federal Hall National Memorial 
    • General Grant National Memorial 
    • Governors Island National Monument 
    • Hamilton Grange National Memorial 
    • Saint Paul's Church National Historic Site 
    • Stonewall National Monument 
    • and Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

      These sites in Massachusetts: 
    • Boston African American National Historic Site 
    • Bunker Hill Monument 
    • Faneuil Hall
    • Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site 
    • Freedom Trail
    • John F. Kennedy National Historic Site 
    • Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site 
    • New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park
    • Salem Maritime National Historic Site
    • Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site

      In addition, we also worked with collaborators at: 
    • Death Valley National Park (California)
    • Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (West Virginia)
    • Keweenaw National Historical Park (Michigan)
    • Mount Rainier National Park (Washington)
    • Roger Williams National Memorial (Rhode Island)
    • Weir Farm National Historic Site (Connecticut)

    As of the end of 2019, here were the participating U.S. National Park Service sites with Audio Description being shared publicly in the UniD apps:

    • African Burial Ground NM
    • Badlands National Park 
    • Big South Fork NRRA 
    • Blue Ridge Parkway 
    • Boston African American NHS 
    • Bunker Hill - Boston NHP 
    • Cabrillo National Monument 
    • Cape Cod National Seashore 
    • Capulin Volcano NM 
    • Carl Sandburg Home 
    • Castle Clinton NM 
    • Cesar E. Chavez NM 
    • Channel Islands National Park 
    • Charles Pinckney NHS 
    • Chickamauga / Chattanooga 
    • Congaree National Park 
    • Cowpens National Battlefield 
    • Death Valley National Park 
    • Denali NPP 
    • Devils Postpile NM 
    • Eugene O’Neill NHS 
    • Everglades National Park 
    • Faneuil Hall 
    • Federal Hall NM 
    • Flight 93 NM 
    • Fort Moultrie NHP 
    • Fort Point NHS 
    • Fort Smith NHS 
    • Fort Stanwix NM 
    • Fort Sumter NHP 
    • Fort Vancouver NHS 
    • Frederick Law Olmsted NHS 
    • Freedom Trail - Boston NHP 
    • Gates of the Arctic NPP 
    • General Grant NM 
    • George Washington MP 
    • Gettysburg NMP 
    • Golden Gate NRA 
    • Governors Island NM 
    • Hagerman Fossil Beds NM 
    • Hamilton Grange NM 
    • Harpers Ferry NHP 
    • Harry S Truman NHS 
    • Hawaii Volcanoes NP 
    • Herbert Hoover NHS 
    • Home of Franklin D Roosevelt 
    • Jamestowne at Colonial NHP 
    • John Day Fossil Beds NM 
    • John F. Kennedy NHS 
    • John Muir NHS 
    • Johnstown Flood NM 
    • Joshua Tree National Park 
    • Katmai NPP 
    • Kennesaw Mountain NBP 
    • Keweenaw NHP 
    • Kings Mountain NMP 
    • Lassen Volcanic National Park 
    • Lava Beds NM 
    • Little River Canyon NP 
    • Longfellow House-Washington’s HQ 
    • Lowell NHP 
    • Mammoth Cave National Park 
    • Manzanar NHS 
    • Minute Man NHP 
    • Mojave National Preserve 
    • Morristown NHP 
    • Mount Rainier National Park 
    • Muir Woods NM 
    • New Bedford Whaling NHP 
    • New River Gorge NR 
    • Ninety Six National Historic Site 
    • Obed NWSA 
    • Olympic National Park 
    • Overmountain Victory NHT 
    • Pinnacles National Park 
    • Point Reyes National Seashore 
    • Port Chicago Naval Magazine NM 
    • Puukohola Heiau NHS 
    • Redwood National Park 
    • Roger Williams NM 
    • Rosie the Riveter/WW II NHP 
    • Russell Cave NM 
    • Saint Paul’s Church NHS 
    • Salem Maritime NHS 
    • San Francisco Maritime NHP 
    • Saugus Iron Works NHS 
    • Sitka National Historical Park 
    • Statue of Liberty NM 
    • Steamtown NHS 
    • Stones River National Battlefield 
    • Stonewall National Monument 
    • Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace 
    • Thomas Edison NHP 
    • Timucuan EHP 
    • Valley Forge NHP 
    • Washington Monument 
    • Weir Farm NHS 
    • Whiskeytown - Shasta -Trinity 
    • Women’s Rights NHP 
    • Yellowstone National Park 
    • Yosemite National Park

    July 2019: Brett Oppegaard, an associate professor in the School of Communications at University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s College of Social Sciences, has been awarded the 2019 Dr. Margaret Pfanstiehl Audio Description Achievement Award for Research Development from the American Council of the Blind (ACB). The award recognizes Oppegaard’s work in helping people who are blind or visually impaired.

    The Dr. Margaret Pfanstiehl Memorial Award for Research and Development is made to an individual or organization for outstanding research that leads to the advancement of audio description. Pfanstiehl was one of the pioneers in the field of audio description, developing a system for live-theater description in the early 1980s.

    Read the full press release here.

    January 2019: All of the content on our website and in our mobile apps is intended to meet the World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative - W3C WAI's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, Level AA conformance.

    To maintain that level of compliance, The American Council of the Blind does periodic Section 508 and WCAG 2.1 AA comprehensive accessibility evaluations of our work using the WebAIM's WCAG 2 Checklist.

    Here is that full ACB review in 2019.

    This $100,000 Google grant helped to continue and expand the UniD research project, especially toward building Descriptathon 5 (around parks in the Southeast United States).

    Conway, T., & Oppegaard, B. (2019, March 4-5). Audio description for mobile apps [Workshop presentation]. Pacific Rim International Conference on Disability and Diversity, Honolulu, HI, U.S. 

    Oppegaard, B., & Conway, M. (2019, May 22-24). The maps gap: Ways in which audio description can connect people who are blind or visually impaired with geographic place [Paper presentation]. Partnership for Progress on the Digital Divide 2019 International Conference (PPDD), Washington, D.C., U.S.

  • 2018

    May 2018: This workshop was held as a part of the International Communication Association's Mobile (ICA Mobile) Preconference at the museum. It was a featured part of the program.

    May 2018: The workshop was held in collaboration with the University of Piraeus, and Associate Professor Apostolos Meliones. It focused on describing artifacts of the Acropolis, and it attracted more than 30 UP students.

    This $50,000 Google grant helped to continue and expand the UniD research project, especially toward building Descriptathon 4 (around New York's Manhattan parks and Boston).

    Conway, M., Conway, T., & Oppegaard, B. (2018, November 10-14). Mobile technology for audio description [Workshop presentation]. Association of University Centers on Disabilities Conference (AUCD), Washington, D.C, U.S.

  • 2017

    Sept. 26-28, 2017: Our Descriptathon 3 was focused on park sites in California.

    That included these sites:

    • Cabrillo National Monument
    • Devils Postpile National Monument
    • Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site
    • Fort Point National Historic Site
    • John Muir National Historic Site
    • Lassen Volcanic National Park
    • Lava Beds National Monument
    • Mojave National Preserve
    • Muir Woods National Monument
    • Pinnacles National Park
    • Point Reyes National Seashore
    • Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial
    • Redwood National Park
    • Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park
    • Yosemite National Park
    • Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area

    Feb. 7-9, 2017: Our Descriptathon 2 was focused on park sites nationwide.

    That included these sites:

    • Cape Cod National Seashore (Massachusetts)
    • Cesar E. Chavez NM (California)
    • Channel Islands National Park (California)
    • Flight 93 (Pennsylvania)
    • Fort Smith NHS (Arkansas)
    • Fort Stanwix National Monument (New York)
    • Gates of the Arctic National Park (Alaska)
    • George Washington Parkway (Virginia / D.C.)
    • Hagerman Fossil Beds NM (Idaho)
    • Herbert Hoover NHS (Iowa)
    • Home of FDR National Historic Site (New York)
    • Jamestowne at Colonial NHP (Virginia)
    • John Day Fossil Beds NM (Oregon)
    • Johnstown Flood National Memorial (Pennsylvania)
    • Joshua Tree National Park (California)
    • Katmai NPP (Alaska)
    • Lowell NHP (Massachusetts)
    • Manzanar NHS (California)
    • Minute Man National Historic Park (Massachusetts)
    • Morristown NHP (New Jersey)
    • New River Gorge National River (West Virginia)
    • Sitka NHP (Alaska)
    • Statue of Liberty National Monument (New York / New Jersey)
    • Steamtown NHS (Pennsylvania)
    • Valley Forge National Historical Park (Pennsylvania)
    • Women's Rights National Historical Park (New York)

    June 2017: Two of our major partners in this project joined us at the same time, in the summer of 2017, when Google provided its first grant on the project and included the American Council of the Blind in that work. Our first Google liaison, Adrienne Biddings, brought it all together.

    May 2017: This "From Policy to Programming" conference used our UniD tools to create an accessible version of its conference program.

    This $75,000 grant from Google started our partnership with the American Council of the Blind and led us to create Descriptathon 3 (mostly in California).

    Oppegaard, B. (2017, March 15-18). From eye to ear: Lessons learned from experiments in audio description [Poster presentation]. Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), Portland, OR, U.S. 

    Oppegaard, B. (2017, May 25-29). Insider positionality: Creating tools and translations to investigate audio description [Paper presentation]. International Communication Association Conference (ICA), San Diego, CA. 

    Oppegaard, B.Conway, M., & Conway, T. (2017, August 11-13). To bracket or not bracket: Experiments in gamification in the wilds of technical communication [Poster presentation]. The Association for Computer Machinery Special Interest Group on Design of Communication (SIGDOC), Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

    Conway, M., Heyer, K., Black, R., Oppegaard, B., Dalmiya, V., & Brown, S. (2017, October 9-11). Disability studies: Cultivating critical narrative consciousness [Panel presentation]. Pacific Rim International Conference on Disability and Diversity, Honolulu, HI, U.S. 

    And, ...

    Conway, T., Oppegaard, B., & Conway, M. (2017, October 9-11). Creating audio description for mobile apps [Workshop presentation]. Pacific Rim International Conference on Disability and Diversity, Honolulu, HI, U.S.

  • 2016

    Sept. 21-22, 2016: Our first Descriptathon was focused on park sites nationwide.

    That included these sites:

    • Cape Cod National Seashore (Massachusetts)
    • Denali National Park (Alaska)
    • Everglades National Park (Florida)
    • Fort Vancouver National Historic Site (Washington)
    • Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site (Hawaii)
    • San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park (California)
    • Thomas Edison National Historical Park (New Jersey)
    • Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming / Montana / Idaho)

    April 2016: Before the Descriptathons, we had a pilot sort of a Descriptathon, involving three parks in an informal test of our online tools and the site staff members' preexisting Audio Description skills.

    Those sites were:

    • Golden Gate National Recreation Area (California)
    • Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (Hawaii)
    • Washington Monument (D.C.)

    This $66,500 NPS grant helped to continue and expand the UniD research project, especially toward building Descriptathon 2 (sites around the country).

    January 2016: Our first official published scholarly work on this project:

    Conway, T., Oppegaard, B., & Conway, M. (2016). Toward cultural inclusion: Using mobile technologies to increase access to audio description, The Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal, 11(4), 5-8. Retrieved from: https://www.rdsjournal.org/index.php/journal/article/view/596?source=/index.php/journal/article/view/596.

    September 2016: 

    Oppegaard, B. (2016, September 23-24). From seeing to hearing: Research-based design experimentation in development of open-source web and mobile tools for print-to-acoustic remediation. The Association for Computer Machinery SIG Design of Communication Conference, Silver Spring, MD, United States.

    November 2016: 

    Oppegaard, B. (2016, November 24-26) When No Tool Exists, Make One: Accessibility and Audio Description as a Computer Science Problem. [Keynote presentation]. International Conference on Information Systems & Computer Science, Quito, Ecuador.

  • 2015

    April 2015: For more than the first six months of this project, it was unnamed. As we deconstructed the hundreds of brochures, which are based on the "UniGrid" ideas of Massimo Vignelli, we marveled at the flexibility yet consistencies of that design framework. This admiration led us to call the project "UniDescription," in tribute, with the hope of creating similarly useful digital infrastructure for the creation of widespread Audio Description. Here is our audio-described version of the Unigrid Design Specifications brochure.

    May 2015:  The first official academic presentation on this UniDescription research happened as a part of this major annual conference:

    Oppegaard, B. (2015, May 20-21). Mobile for everyone? An analysis of National Park Service audio description as a step toward improving universal design through mobile. [Paper presentation]. International Communication Association Mobile Preconference, San Juan, Puerto Rico, United States.

    Academic presentation in July 2015:

    Oppegaard, B. (2015, July 16-17). Envisioning Mobile Apps for Audio Description: Exploring Universal Design of NPS Brochures. [Paper presentation]. The Association for Computer Machinery SIG Design of Communication Conference, Limerick, Ireland.

  • 2014

    August 2014: As then-Assistant Professor Brett Oppegaard moved from Washington State University Vancouver (near Portland, OR) to the University of Hawaii (in Honolulu, HI), he brought with him a new $278,000 grant from the U.S. National Park Service intended to jumpstart a national research initiative in Audio Description. One of his first acts at UH was to reach out to the UH Center on Disability Studies for potential help with this project, which attracted the interests of two CDS scholars: Thomas and Megan Conway, who continue to work on this project today. This grant also helped to create the Descriptathon process, starting with the success of the pilot, followed by Descriptathon 1.

    September 2014: The U.S. National Park Service liaison on The UniDescription Project, Michele Hartley, arranges for a collection of UniGrid brochures to be sent to the research team in Hawaii. A suitcase-sized box arrives one day in early September, and inside that box are hundreds of brochures from around the country (we never counted exactly how many, but around 350), from a wide diversity of NPS sites, including battlefields, memorials, monuments, parkways, preserves, and seashores, as well as cultural and natural icons of national importance. The glory and grandness of the country could be seen in this array. But how we were going to let it be heard? ... Our first official research-team meeting took place on Sept. 14, 2014.

Begin audio-describing your world

This grant-funded project is open-access and open-source. To start making your own audio description, just create an account, sign in, and follow the directions.

By using this site, you agree to follow our Terms, Conditions, License, Privacy Policy, and Research Protocols.