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This template is constantly evolving, but when we encounter a new image that needs to be described, we typically split the transcription from the description, meaning all existing text should be copied and pasted into the UniD system, so it easily can be heard as a part of the Audio Description. That's the easy part.

The next step is remediating (aka translating) the purely visual piece of media into a purely audible form (in this case, into digital text, which can be read by screen readers or heard as Mp3 files). 

One aspect of a visual image that complicates this process is its typical lack of a single narrative thread or a single meaning. Most images give everything at once (all of the possible storylines and all of the possible meanings, forcing a viewer to quickly decide on the interpretation). In other words, images can be interpreted in many ways, based on the perspective, interests, and context of the viewer. 

In the case of Audio Description, though, the describer must choose that perspective to transform the media from visual to audio for the secondary listener. This choice becomes an inherent filter, which affects the reception of the description in many significant ways. If the describer and the listener are aligned on the choice, then the process might be relatively seamless. But if the describer takes a perspective that – for whatever reason – does not align with the listener, a fog of confusion easily can be created. In that respect, we suggest that describers first determine the purpose of the image. Why is it being used? What is it being used to illustrate? If you can clearly determine the purpose of the image that can help you to decide on your describing approach.

Once you have determined the purpose, and what you think this image description needs to do for the listener, I recommend a journalistic approach to Audio Description. Journalism has a long history of using texts to convey imagery and meaning. Journalists aspire to be fair and objective about what they see, by not taking sides or tilting the scales, and so should an audio describer. Journalists aim for the heart of the matter, and always tell the truth. These are all reasonable and potentially valuable positions to take on this subject. 

In practice, I think, that means that the describers should start their descriptions either with a fact-focused summary, with the most-important facts first, or with a narrative approach that tells "the most important" story about the image, meaning the story that the describer has chosen to best reflect the image's purpose. 

For the former style, the facts-first approach, the inverted-pyramid technique (in which the most important facts are provided in descending order of importance) has been used for hundreds of years for utilitarian purposes. It gets the job done. 

For the latter, the storytelling style, which we hypothesize as the style with the most potential for creating motivating and engaging Audio Description, there has been some research (and a lot of speculation) about how mental images are formed from words and how narratives engage our minds. This type of conjuring happens all of the time, for example, in novels. But what about in description form, when a particular image exists in reality, and someone wants to hear about it, specifically?

There certainly are opportunities for poetic and creative forms of Audio Description that follow no template. We are working on just such an experiment with the National Endowment for the Arts and The Goldsworthy Walk in San Francisco. But, as a workhorse model, I propose that describers connect with the long-established journalistic traditions of Who What When Where How and Why. I think this approach will work well in this field of Audio Description, too.

For example, when the describer encounters an image of a person or people doing something (which is what most images are), the description could easily convey Who is doing What, When and Where. ... This still needs to be empirically tested, but I hypothesize a return loop then is warranted to unspool the Who (what does the Who look like, in more detail?) and the What (what does it look like, more specifically, when the Who does that thing?). At that point the How might come into play. Or the How can come later. But the When might need some further description (how do we know, from looking, that it is When), and the Where (again, how do we know, from looking, Where this image is)? Lastly, if the How already has been described in depth, the description should address the Why? Why is this person doing this thing in this time period in this place? And how? I think if a describer can do all of that, in this type of orderly manner, descriptions will be easier to understand (and also to write). 

What if the image doesn't have a person? An animal might use the same approach (what's its motivation?). This approach, of course, can become quite complicated by a collage of, say, a National Park ecosystem shared by people, animals, and plant life. In some scenes we have encountered, there are dozens of potential starting points and mini-narratives to tell. The key, in those cases, is to create a strategy for your approach and then carry it all of the way through (such as, I'm going to start by describing all of the things the people do in this place; then, I'm going to describe all of the animals in action; then the plant life, or in some other order, depending on what's most important in that particular place). 

A type of flower, though, would not necessarily have a motivating action to attribute (unless you are focusing on describing photosynthesis or seed spreading). Neither would an image of a piece of machinery. So for an artifact or any type of visual protagonist that does not have human or animal motivations, I suggest simply clipping out the Who (agent or actor) part of the approach and focusing instead on the What, When, and Where. What is this thing, and when and where is it at? Such a contextualization process will held to render meaning and to put the artifact into its place. A How and Why also probably exist in this scenario. So those can be teased out as well.

But what if there is no person or thing? One of the toughest challenges we have faced as describers is describing a map (check out the paper we wrote about that issue on our Research page). A map, at least theoretically, has no fact that is more important than any other and no clear narrative to tell. It does, though, have a purpose, and we recommend first identifying the purpose of the map. If you can do that, then you can probably develop a strategy to communicate that purpose. For example, maybe the map is shared to show highlights of the area, if you are a tourist, so the description would take a "highlights" approach. Or maybe the map is designed to help a person navigate a complex area, so the description would take a "navigation" approach. Or maybe the map isn't really about highlights or navigation; instead, it really just intends to show people the way it used to be, or how something was done, with no intention of the viewer of the map walking in those footsteps. If that's the case, a cultural-history approach or a natural-history approach might be the best choice. 

Once all of that has been settled, the describer still needs to determine what comes first, second, third, etc., since an audible experience is linear while a visual experience is not. 

To approach this part of the Audio Description challenge, we have created a template for describing that goes in this order, and in this style:

1. COMPONENT NAME: Start with the type of image, such as MAP: (we found the inclusion of MAP, and the like, to help set the stage for the listener). This label then should include the basic information to tell the listeners what they will get by selecting this description, such as the title of the image being described (if it has one), who made it (if that seems important), and the year it was created (if that seems important), and its physical location at the place (if that's relevant)

2. DESCRIBING: How would you describe the artifact you are describing? In this order: Size (small / medium / large) / Shape (horizontal / vertical / square / cut-out / oval / circle) / Type (i.e., photograph, chart, or map; see hierarchy below), distinctive characteristics (like the primary or only image on the page), and the point of view that the listener has (through what frame is this image being conveyed?) ... note only if in black and white (not if in color)

3. If multiple types of media in a package, this is the hierarchy we use to stack the descriptions (as UniD style, not based on empirical study):

A. COLLAGE / IMAGE(S) = photo or illustration / 

B. MAP / 

C. TIMELINE / 

D. CHART / 

E. QUOTE / 

F. TEXT 


4. If more than 1 of any of these, then signal with a label, like:

IMAGE 1 of 6 over the first one, IMAGE 2 of 6 over the second one, and so on ... 


5. If only one of a kind, then just describe it ... as such:

DESCRIPTION: Description goes here

UniD Narrative Style: Who is doing what to whom, when and where and why and how?

CAPTION: Caption goes here

CREDIT: Credit goes here

RELATED TEXT: Related text goes here


Last updated by: Brett Oppegaard, Nov. 1, 2020

"The community of users who are blind, have low vision, have a print-related disability, or are auditory-oriented learners are diverse. They use different equipment based on their needs and technology skills. The UniD system allows for multiple outputs to make audio-described “unigrid” brochure content accessible.

Each audio-described NPS unigrid brochure in this project has been added to the UniDescription mobile app, available for free on the App Store (Apple / iOS devices, https://goo.gl/zAWWj6) and Google Play (Android devices, https://goo.gl/EU9pjc).

The UniD system allows additional formats to be created (HTML5 for website integration, Mp3 audio files, and text files), for distribution on websites, social media, or person-to-person sharing, based on the user’s needs and available tools. These distribution formats are intended to cover all use-case scenarios involving park visitors who are blind, visually impaired, print dyslexic, or audio-oriented learners.

Below are instructions for accessing and downloading the app. These instructions are followed by a step-by-step guide for exporting and uploading UniD files onto each park’s NPS.gov website."

"With so much sad and scary discourse circulating, this month seemed an appropriate time to launch a counter-narrative in the form of our first public UniDescription Report. Positive news, like what is in this report, has been happening in 2020, too. And you are a part of it. 

Our small research-and-development team – working from a tiny speck of an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean 

– has been collaborating for the past five+ years with people from around the United States to steadily improve media accessibility, especially for those who are deaf-blind, blind, or low-vision. We are sending out this report as a way to further connect with you (our partners), to share our collective successes together, and to update you about what we are planning. We have many exciting ideas in motion! 

This week is Helen Keller Deaf-Blind Awareness Week, for example, and one of our Co-PIs, Dr. Megan Conway, is doing her part to make a more-accessible world as a Research and Accessibility Specialist for the Helen Keller National Center. Through her advocacy, we have expanded our UniD research scope this year to explicitly include people who both cannot see and hear well, as a distinct audience for Audio Description. 

Next month is the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Maybe that would be an ideal moment for you to lead new public conversations about the accessibility of your favorite places, say 

U.S. National Park Service sites, and how you might be able to improve that accessibility for more people?"

"Why audio description? 

In a society broadly shifting toward visual media, those who are blind or visually impaired are at risk of being excluded from socially and culturally important discourses, including access to primary sources of education and entertainment, such as national parks. This long-term research project addresses that issue by building audio description resources as well as accessible mobile apps for national parks."

Industry Standards for Audio Description

Here are industry standards that have been published.

"Audio description helps to ensure that people who are blind or have low vision enjoy equal access to cultural events by providing the essential visual information. Audio description uses the natural pauses in dialogue or narration to insert descriptions of the essential visual elements: actions, appearance of characters, body language, costumes, settings, lighting, etc.

Descriptions are delivered through a wireless earphone to permit people who are blind or have low vision to sit anywhere in the audience. The Standards for Audio Description reflect audio description’s origin as a means of making live theatre performances accessible; however, the spirit of these principles applies to almost all audio description situations. Other art forms and media call for variations from these original principles, which are discussed in separate sections later in this document.

The Code of Professional Conduct for Describers, near the end of this document, addresses the responsibilities of audio describers and trainers in terms of obligations to clients and consumers, privacy and confidentiality, behavior, business practices, and continuing development.

"This standard specifies requirements for the design of inclusive audio-based network navigation systems (IABNNS), which are technologies used to augment the physical environment by delivering sufficient audio, haptic, visual instructions or instructions in other formats as may be required. This standard helps design professionals achieve an inclusive environment through IABNNSs that augment the physical environment by the provision of aural information about environments for users. 

This standard applies to IABNNS that provide real-time wayfinding and location support. The wayfinding technologies include but are not limited to beacon-based location, software-based location, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, electromagnetic signals, Ultra-Wide Band, location-based algorithms, and a variety of smart device components. IABNNS features may include but are not limited to indoor positioning, points of interest (POI), mapping and localization, low vision maps, virtual tours, pre-journey learning, audio navigation, route directions, step-by-step navigation, distance calculation and location-based announcements."

"Recommendation ITU-T F.921 explains how audio-based network navigation systems can be designed to ensure that they are inclusive and meet the needs of persons with visual impairments. Recommendation ITU-T F.921 adopts a technology neutral approach by defining and explaining the functional characteristics of the system. The aim is to give designers of audio-based network navigation systems the information that they need at the initial stages of development to anticipate and overcome any restrictions and barriers that prevent users with visual impairments from making full and independent use of the built environment. Recommendation ITU-T F.921 explains how to accommodate users’ experience of audio-based network navigation systems and ensure the interoperability of those systems. This Recommendation recognizes that by meeting the user needs of persons with visual impairments, audio-based network navigation systems may also benefit persons with other disabilities, age-related conditions and specific needs, as well as the general public."

"We, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board or Board), are revising and updating, in a single rulemaking, our standards for electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by Federal agencies covered by section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as well as our guidelines for telecommunications equipment and customer premises equipment covered by Section 255 of the Communications Act of 1934. The revisions and updates to the section 508-based standards and section 255-based guidelines are intended to ensure that information and communication technology covered by the respective statutes is accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities."

"Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is developed through the W3C process in cooperation with individuals and organizations around the world, with a goal of providing a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments internationally.

The WCAG documents explain how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities. Web “content” generally refers to the information in a web page or web application, including:

  • natural information such as text, images, and sounds
  • code or markup that defines structure, presentation, etc."

Industry Best Practices for Audio Description

Here are industry best-practices guidelines that have been published.

"These Guidelines/Best Practices have been gathered / developed and are an ongoing work-in-progress by the ACB‘s Audio Description Project chaired by ACB‘s Vice President Kim Charlson. The word ―gathered‖ is used since the work here is not, by and large, new: it is a ―review of the literature,‖ a culling of material that exists in documents that are widely available. Generally, those documents are not the result of scientific research. But they reflect and in turn these Guidelines/Best Practices are based on many years of experience with audio description in a wide range of contexts."

"The list of recommended practices was then subjected to a consensus review process by these leading experts, resulting in a reduction from 204 to 63 critical indicators. This work was opened to an extensive public review in the spring of 2008 that invited comments and rankings of each indicator's importance. The expert panel met a final time in July 2008 to review these public comments, the rankings, and to discuss each indicator before adopting the final document presented here. (For a more detailed look at how (and why) the Key was developed, please read "Background of the Description Key.")

Since 2008 some fine tuning and revision of guidelines has taken place based on: (a) DCMP experiences in working with a large number of vendors that provide description service; (b) input from a large number of professionals and consumers who have served on the DCMP board and acted as DCMP advisors; (c) recent (2011) partnerships with the American Council of the Blind (ACB) and with the Video Description Research and Development Center (VDRDC) as a member of the VDRDC Description Leadership Network."

"In July 2012, Accessible Media Inc. (AMI) and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) embarked upon a process to begin to develop Described Video (Audio Description) Best Practices for the Canadian broadcasting industry with the support of the Canadian Radio-Television & Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Producers of description along with broadcasting-industry and community-group representatives came forward to develop the Described Video Best Practices (DVBP) in an effort to standardize the delivery of description (DV) to bring context to a practice that is both a science and an art."

"Millions of learners with print disabilities have trouble understanding and interpreting complex graphics and images in textbooks and journals. The WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) offers research-based guidelines and training on how to make science, technology, engineering and math images meaningful and accessible through description."

"Audio description is an additional commentary between the dialogue of a film/ television programme that tells the viewer what is happening on the screen so that he/ she is able to keep up with the action. It bridges the gap in accessibility for a blind or a partially sighted person when watching a film/ TV programme. 

In an attempt to achieve qualitative improvement in film/ television description being produced in the UK, Independent Television Commission (ITC) in 2000 rolled out a code giving guidance on how description should be written and produced (ITC guidelines). This code was updated in 2006 by Ofcom and is now available as Ofcom's Code on Television Access Services. Aside from the UK, a number of countries such as Germany, France, Spain, Sweden, Belgium and Greece also rolled out their guidelines/ standards/ codes for the production of AD in their countries. More similar than different in nature, these guidelines/ standards/codes as the authorities choose to call them, provide guidance on standards for the production and presentation of audio description This paper draws comparisons and similarities between six sets of existing AD guidelines from 6 different countries - UK, Greece, France, Germany, Spain and American Council of the Blind's ADP project's ADI standards."

"AD is a service for the blind and visually impaired that renders Visual Arts and Media accessible to this target group. In brief, it offers a verbal description of the relevant (visual) components of a work of art or media product, so that blind and visually impaired patrons can fully grasp its form and content. AD is offered with different types of arts and media content, and, accordingly, has to fulfil different requirements. Descriptions of "static" visual art, such as paintings and sculptures, are used to make a museum or exhibition accessible to the blind and visually impaired.

These descriptions can be offered live, as part of a guided tour for instance, or they can be made available in recorded form, as part of an audio guide. AD of "dynamic" arts and media services has slightly different requirements. The descriptions of essential visual elements of films, TV series, opera, theatre, musical and dance performances or sports events, have to be inserted into the "natural pauses" in the original soundtrack of the production. It is only in combination with the original sounds, music and dialogues that the AD constitutes a coherent and meaningful whole, or "text". AD for dynamic products can be recorded and added to the original soundtrack (as is usually the case for film and TV), or it can be performed live (as is the case for live stage performances).

Depending on the nature of a production additional elements may be required to render it fully accessible. In the case of subtitled films, the subtitles need to be voiced and turned into what are called Audio Subtitles (AST). Some films or theatre productions require an introduction (called Audio Introductions, AI) for various reasons. In the case of museum exhibitions, descriptions may be combined with touch tours or other tactile information. In all cases, websites can be used to provide additional information about a production or exhibition, provided they are accessible, too."

Organizations: Groups of blind or low-vision people furthering Audio Description

National or international associations for people who are blind, low-vision, or deafblind.

"The American Council of the Blind strives to increase the independence, security, equality of opportunity, and quality of life for all blind and visually impaired people."

"The National Federation of the Blind knows that blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future. Every day we raise the expectations of blind people, because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams."

"The mission of the American Foundation for the Blind is to create a world of no limits for people who are blind or visually impaired. We mobilize leaders, advance understanding, and champion impactful policies and practices using research and data."

"Live. Live your life on your terms.

Work. Prepare for a great job, pursue your passion or devote yourself to a cause.

Thrive. Define success in your own way—and achieve it.

At HKNC, you'll find the training, resources and support to make all this possible

Our team of experts will work closely with you to develop an individualized action plan tailored to your needs and goals, and everything you learn will have practical, real-world applications. One-on-one training, cutting-edge technology, hands-on learning and the opportunity to interact with people who know firsthand the challenges you face—it's all part of the HKNC experience."

"The mission of the Lighthouse is to educate, empower, and employ people who are visually impaired and blind. We have provided residents of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties with no cost vision rehabilitation since 1983."

"Lighthouse Guild is the leading organization dedicated to addressing and preventing vision loss. We provide coordinated care for eye health, vision rehabilitation and behavioral health as well as related services directed at prevention, early detection and intervention of vision disorders. Reducing the burdens of vision loss is the cornerstone of what we do."

"The Blinded Veterans Association (BVA) was formed in 1945 and was chartered by Congress in 1958. BVA helps veterans and their families meet and overcome the challenges of blindness. Services of BVA are available to all veterans who have become blind, either during or after active duty."

"Since 1942, Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) has been creating partnerships between people, dogs, and communities. With exceptional client services and a robust network of instructors, puppy raisers, donors, and volunteers, we prepare highly qualified guide dogs to serve and empower individuals who are blind or have low vision from throughout the United States and Canada.

All of the services for our clients are provided free of charge, including personalized training and extensive post-graduation support, plus financial assistance for veterinary care, if needed. Our work is made possible by the generous support of our donors and volunteers; we receive no government funding."

"We’re the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), one of the UK’s leading sight loss charities and the largest community of blind and partially sighted people.

We recognise everyone’s unique experience of sight loss and offer help and support for blind and partially sighted people – this can be anything from practical and emotional support, campaigning for change, reading services and the products we offer in our online shop.

We’re a catalyst for change – inspiring people with sight loss to transform their own personal experience, their community and, ultimately, society as a whole. Our focus is on giving them the help, support and tools they need to realise their aspirations.

Every day 250 people begin to lose their sight. RNIB has a crucial role to play in creating a world where there are no barriers to people with sight loss. We want society, communities and individuals to see differently about sight loss."

Conferences and Coalitions: Major academic conferences in this field

Here is where Audio Description scholars gather.

"ARSAD has become an established forum to exchange ideas on audio description with all interested stakeholders: users, practitioners, researchers, trainers, trainees, regulators, broadcasters, policy makers, social activists, cultural managers and anyone interested in audio description."

Books about Audio Description

Here are books on this subject that we have read and recommend.

Ellis, K., Goggin, G., Haller, B., & Curtis, R. (Eds.). (2019). The Routledge Companion to Disability and Media. Routledge. https://www.routledge.com/The-Routledge-Companion-to-Disability-and-Media-1st-Edition/Ellis-Goggin-Haller-Curtis/p/book/9781138884588


Fryer, L. (2016). An introduction to audio description: A practical guide. London: Routledge.

Matamala, A., & Orero, P. (2016). Researching audio description: New Approaches. Palgrave Macmillan.

Jankowska, A. (2015). Translating audio description scripts: Translation as a new strategy of creating audio description. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Edition. https://www.peterlang.com/view/title/17278

Maszerowska, A., Matamala, A., & Orero, P. (Eds.). (2014). Audio description: New perspectives illustrated (Vol. 112). John Benjamins Publishing Company. https://benjamins.com/catalog/btl.112

Meloncon, L. (Ed.). (2014). Rhetorical accessability: At the intersection of technical communication and disability studies. Routledge. https://www.routledge.com/Rhetorical-Accessability-At-the-Intersection-of-Technical-Communication/Meloncon/p/book/9780895037893

Dolmage, J. (2014). Disability Rhetoric. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press. https://muse.jhu.edu/book/27790

Snyder, J. (2014). The visual made verbal: A comprehensive training manual and guide to the history and applications of audio description. American Council of the Blind, Inc. http://www.thevisualmadeverbal.com/

Cintas, J. D., Neves, J., & Matamala, A. (2010). New Insights into Audiovisual Translation and Media Accessibility: Media for All 2. Rodopi. https://brill.com/view/title/27749

Díaz-Cintas, J., Orero, P., & Remael, A. (Eds.). (2007). Media for all: subtitling for the deaf, audio description, and sign language (Vol. 30). Rodopi. https://brill.com/view/title/27746

Goggin, G., Newell, G., & Newell, C. (2003). Digital disability: The social construction of disability in new media. Rowman & Littlefield. https://catalog.loc.gov/vwebv/search?searchCode=LCCN&searchArg=2002009977&searchType=1&permalink=y

Ellis, F. (1991). A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words for Blind and Visually Impaired Person Too!: An Introduction to Audiodescription. American Foundation for the Blind. https://www.worldcat.org/title/picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words-for-blind-and-visually-impaired-persons-too-an-introduction-to-audiodescription/oclc/24280440

More Resources: Besides UniD, other helpful reports, documents, and websites

A collection of other important Audio Description resources.

"Welcome to MAP, the Media Accessibility Platform, a unified atlas charting the worldwide landscape of research, policies, training and practices in this field. MAP aims to make media accessible to all, regardless of sensorial and linguistic barriers."

"Extant is a national organisation that has been forging a performing arts practice made by and dedicated to visually impaired people since 1997. Extant has also developed new ways of providing integrated access to visually impaired audiences. At the same time, other companies, both disabled-led and non-disabled-led, have also been working to integrate access into their productions, not just for visually impaired people, but also for people with other access needs. Even so, there is a sense that this work is lacking research and exposure, and that those who are experimenting with these techniques are doing so in isolation, meaning that reputable resources on the topic are difficult to find. This has led us to two major questions that relate to this research: do we truly understand what visually impaired people need from access? Do the current models of integrated provision meet those needs?

To mark their 20th year, Extant commissioned Is It Working, a research inquiry into audio description and integrated access as it is being used currently throughout the UK. This research brings together feedback from visually impaired audiences with information from the creative teams charged with providing integrated access to see if it’s possible to quantify what makes effective integrated access. We extend our thanks to all who have taken part. The results of that Inquiry are presented here with a view to calling companies into action to do more, and to support said companies as they travel down this path in the future."

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