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Why Audio Descriptions Need to Be a Priority for Your Content

May 29, 2020

audio-description

What’s something you need to have to enjoy your favorite movie?

While you might say a bowl of popcorn or your favorite candy, for some, the answer is entirely different: an audio description.

Having an audio description provides additional information on the visual media that is considered essential for being able to understand the content. When this isn’t provided, blind and visually impaired individuals are unable to understand and enjoy the media to its fullest potential.

No matter what type of visual media you’re creating, whether it be a corporate training video, a live performance, or a Hollywood movie, it’s important to make sure that everyone can experience it and understand what’s happening. That’s where having an audio description comes into play.

Types of audio descriptions

Three main types of audio descriptions are used in the industry that can be added to your visual media to ensure it can be enjoyed by everyone.

  1. Standard: This allows for snippets of narration to be within the natural pauses of dialogue of the original content. These descriptions tend to be short and concise so that they can fit into the allotted time within the pause. This ensures that the audio enhances the content instead of distracting from it.
  2. Extended: This is not limited to the natural pauses within the audio. Listeners can pause the original content to make room for an extended description when it’s needed. For this to work, both the video and the description will begin playing. Then, the video will pause temporarily until the audio completely finishes. Once it does, the video will begin again.
  3. Real-Time: This type of audio provides live commentary or narration by a trained professional through headphones and a small transmitter.
Types of audio descriptions


Unsure of which to use? Standard audio description works well for content with frequent pauses or when a small amount of detail needs to be described.

An extended audio description is ideal when lengthier descriptions and key visual information cues need to be described. If you need an audio description for a theatrical performance, in-person tours, or other live events, go with real-time audio.

Benefits of audio descriptions

There are many benefits that you may not realize to including an audio description within your video or other visual media.

Accessibility

According to the CDC, 12 million people in the United States who are over the age of 40 have a vision impairment, including the 1 million people who are completely blind.

Audio descriptions in media allow visual and entertainment content to be accessible for all consumers who are visually impaired.

Flexibility

Another benefit of audio descriptions is the flexibility it provides to viewers interested in experiencing videos and other media in an eyes-free environment. This means that viewers can understand visuals that are happening without being tied down to one place.

This is becoming a growing trend as people are listening to movies and television shows with the audio descriptions turned on, which allows them to experience their content similar to an audiobook while they’re cooking, driving, or doing other household related tasks.

Development

Audio descriptions also aid in the development of two important groups of people: those on the autism spectrum and children.

Individuals with autism often find that listening to audio descriptions paired with visuals helps them understand the emotional and social cues that are demonstrated through actions and facial expressions. Thanks to the narration of visual elements within media, audio descriptions can help identify emotions that those with autism may find difficult to pinpoint or understand.

Children can also benefit from audio descriptions as they develop their language skills. As they begin to associate words with certain actions and behaviors, audio descriptions can be a useful tool to enhance language development and introduce new vocabulary.

Auditory learning

The brain processes information either visually or auditorily, which is why you hear people say they’re visual learners or that they learn better when they hear specific information.

For those who gravitate towards auditory learning, audio descriptions can be a helpful aid when retaining new information in an educational setting.

30%

of the population is made up of auditory learners who say they absorb information best through their sense of hearing.

Source: StudyingStyle

Audio description laws

There’s no denying that adding audio descriptions to your content brings many benefits. While some would argue that adding it is simply the right thing to do, several anti-discriminatory laws require it.

In the United States, four main accessibility laws require an audio description to accommodate and offer access to those who are blind or who have low vision.

The Americans with Disability Act

The Americans with Disability Act, also known as the ADA, became law in 1990. This anti-discriminatory law includes a statement that calls for “auxiliary aids” in communication. This applies to those who are blind or have low vision and means that audio descriptions need to be provided.

Within the act are two titles that break this down:

  • Title II: Applies to programs, services, and activities of state and local government.
  • Title III: Applies to places of accommodation, such as theaters and museums.

These have since been revised to include online-only businesses, like Netflix and Hulu.

The Rehabilitation Act

Passed in 1973, the Rehabilitation Act, also known as the Rehab Act, prohibits discrimination based on disability in programs conducted by federal agencies, in programs receiving federal financial assistance, in federal employment, and the employment practices of federal contractors.

Within this act are two sections highlighting closed captioning and web accessibility requirements that impact video accessibility:

  • Section 504: Requires equal access for individuals with disabilities, applying to deferral and federally funded programs. Essentially, this protects the civic rights of people with disabilities by requiring that all organizations that receive federal funding make accommodations for equal access. This means that audio descriptions must be provided to those who are blind or have low vision.
  • Section 508: Requires federal communications and information technology to be made accessible. This section, which was added in 2018, states that all film, video, multimedia, and information technology that is either produced or procured by federal agencies must include audio descriptions.

The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act

In October 2010, President Barack Obama signed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA). This Act requires modern communication technologies to be made accessible to all people regardless of vision and/or hearing loss.

The goal of this act is to phase-in requirements for audio descriptions between 2010 and 2020. The original roll-out of this act stated that CBS, NBC, ABC, USA, Fox, Disney Channel, TNT, TBS, and Nickelodeon each must provide 50 hours of video-described prime time or children’s programming per calendar quarter by 2012.

This expanded to 60 other TV markets in July 2015 followed by another increase in markets in July 2018. By the end of 2020, 100% of television programming will have audio description available to viewers.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

Otherwise known as WCAG, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which is the international standard for web accessibility, requires audio descriptions for time-based media.

Essentially, documents within this law explain how to make web content more accessible with disabilities. It also requires audio descriptions to be provided for those who are blind or have low vision.

There are three levels of requirements within the guidelines:

  • Level A: an audio or text alternative for audio descriptions.
  • Level AA: an audio description for a pre-recorded video.
  • Level AAA: an extended audio description.

Standards and requirements of audio descriptions

Whether your visual media is for educational purposes or it’s strictly for entertainment, there are certain quality standards and requirements you should set for your audio description.

Just like the FCC has specific requirements for closed captioning on videos for those with hearing restrictions, the DCMP has a list of guidelines for how to best describe the content.

For instance, it’s important to only describe what is being seen, meaning only what is physically observable. Audio descriptions should never provide a listener with assumptions, opinions, or conclusions. Stick to crucial information only, especially in regards to understanding and comprehending new information.

For example, when providing an audio description of a theatrical performance, you could ask yourself the following questions when writing the audio description:

  • Who is on stage?
  • Who is speaking?
  • What is the time-period or set location?
  • What is the lighting like?
  • What do the costumes look like?

You want to focus on what is essential for the listener to know in terms of plot development and the characters on screen or on stage. You never want to confuse the listener or infer the dialogue taking place.

Some key standards you should set for yourself when writing audio descriptions are:

  • Write simply and clearly.
  • Use accurate and descriptive language.
  • Avoid complicated and technical terms.
  • Use complete sentences.
  • Refrain from offensive or curse words.
  • Match the audio with the style and tone of the content.
  • Avoid personal interpretations and opinions.
  • Be aware of what is real and what is an illusion to the listener.

How to add audio descriptions to media

According to the World Wide Web Consortium, there are several ways that you can add audio descriptions to visual-based media that comply with the WCAG.

  • Adding a second soundtrack: When a device can’t merge multiple soundtracks, this method allows users to replace the original soundtrack with a new version that contains audio descriptions. When using a platform that allows two tracks to play at the same time, a second audio track can be created that contains the description.
  • Providing a movie with audio descriptions: This method is simply adding audio descriptions to visual media by incorporating a second version of a movie where the original soundtrack and the audio descriptions are combined into one track.
  • Providing a movie with extended audio descriptions: It can be challenging to use standard audio descriptions when there’s a vast amount of information that needs to be explained. When this is the case, a version of a movie or video with extended audio descriptions is the best option.
  • Using a WebVTT track: When creating an HTML5 video, you can add a WebVTT description track. This is a file within the video that utilizes the “description” element within the code. Screen readers, which are often used by individuals who are blind or who have low vision, can read this file to describe what is taking place.

Audio description examples

One of the best ways to truly understand what an audio description is and what they can sound like is by listening to examples. Below are audio descriptions within popular and well-known movies.

Frozen trailer

When the original Frozen trailer came out in 2013, Disney made sure to be as inclusive as possible by releasing one that featured an audio description.

The Lion King Circle of Life

Sticking with the Disney theme, below is the iconic circle of life scene from The Lion King with an audio description.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Fans of Harry Potter can enjoy the opening scene of the final movie mixed with an audio description.

Best audio editing software

When you’re looking to add audio into a media file, it’s important to edit the audio to make sure it’s high quality and that there aren’t any disruptions to the flow of the sound. Audio editing software is your best bet of doing so in a smooth and seamless way.

* Below are the top five leading audio editing software solutions from G2’s Spring 2020 Grid® Report. Some reviews may be edited for clarity.

1. Adobe Audition

Adobe Audition is one part of Adobe's Creative Suite of software products. This professional audio workstation allows users to create, mix, design sound effects, record, and restore audio. Audition is a comprehensive toolset that includes multitrack, waveform, and spectral display.

Adobe Audition
 
What users like:

“Adobe Audition is a great tool with a lot of useful features. I have used it for a variety of different projects, and it has always met my needs. Particularly, I like the noise reduction tools to decrease background noise in my audio files within my videos. It also interfaces very well with Premiere Pro.”

- Adobe Audition Review, Nick P.

What users dislike:

“Some of the more advanced editing in Adobe Audition can require an experienced ear for how certain effects typically sound. In order to get the most accurate feedback on changes, the user should have professional sound monitors, which can be expensive.”

- Adobe Audition Review, Herb V.

2. Logic Pro X

Logic Pro X is Apple's professional-grade audio editing software. It allows users to create and improvise with Live Loops, control music-making sessions from an Apple device, and so much more.

Its long list of features and industry-leading tools make it easy to organize all of your ideas and simplify even the most complex project.

Logic Pro X
 
What users like:

“There are lots of different audio workstations out there today, but I like Logic Pro X because it works on Mac and the tools are very comfortable for me to use. The main area that I work with is the note sequencer, which has very particular spacing and programming capabilities. By default, Logic has many quality sounds and other effects that allow me to make very robust music productions right after it’s installed.”

- Logic Pro X Review, Jeremy C.

What users dislike:

“The biggest weakness of Logic Pro X is that it’s not possible to take external VST plugins (the most common format of an audio plugin) and apply it to your current Logic session. This is a considerable weakness from most other commercial DAWs, especially ones in the same price and capability class. This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Logic comes pre-loaded with a massive suite of instruments, sounds, FX, and plugins that cover many of the bases that external VSTs usually wouldn’t.”

- Logic Pro X Review, Valentin F.

3. Ableton Live

Ableton Live is a fast, fluid, and flexible software for music creation and performance. It comes with effects, instruments, sounds, and all kinds of creative features — everything you need to make any kind of music.

Ableton Live
 
What users like:

“This software can do absolutely anything from recording, editing, mixing, mastering, midi mapping, and running live backing tracks. It takes a bit to learn, but once you do, you don't need any other music-related software to complete tasks.”

- Ableton Live Review, Winford M.

What users dislike:

“The multiple views and layouts of the DAW can be hard to pick up right away. Plus, it takes a while to really grasp all of the features when using this software.”

- Ableton Live Review, Chance M.

4. GarageBand

GarageBand is Apple's pre-installed OS X music creation tool. With Touch Bar features for MacBook Pro and an intuitive, modern design, it’s easy to learn, play, record, create, and share your audio creations.

Tons of helpful recording and editing features make GarageBand as powerful as it is easy to use.

GarageBand
 
What users like:

“After using it only a few times, the controls in GarageBand are quite easy to get a hang of. For basic editing, where we cut pieces of audio and move them around, the process is quite intuitive. I like how clips can be instantly cut, and then moved and snapped into place without having to position clips precisely. There are several audio extensions we can use to save our files, which is great when trying to edit and optimize sound for video production.”

- GarageBand Review, Justin T.

What users dislike:

“The app's ability to export properly sometimes can be frustrating. Another thing that can be annoying is that you’re limited to using only what is available on Apple's store for plugins and other fun features, like finding different drum samples or guitar tones."

- GarageBand Review, Kyler S.

5. Audacity

Audacity is a free and open-source audio editor that’s easy to use, offers a multi-track audio editor and recorder, and works with Windows, macOS, GNU/Linux, among other operating systems.

Users can import, edit, and combine sound files. It’s also simple to export recordings in many different file formats, including multiple files at once.

Audacity
 
What users like:

“Audacity is a very user-friendly platform for editing sound clips. I started using it in high school when I did sound design for all our theatre productions and it worked great when I needed to make a sound effect fit a scene or edit out parts of songs. Today, I mainly use it for editing music and it’s very easy to get started with the basics within this program.”

- Audacity Review, Travis B.

What users dislike:

“The interface is not the most intuitive. Visually it looks a bit dated and is also not the easiest for finding everything you need. Some of the audio effects may need to be downloaded as additional plugins.”

- Audacity Review, Nick P.

A picture is worth a thousand words

No matter what kind of visual media you’re creating, having an audio description to go hand-in-hand with it is an absolute must. Not only does having an audio description for your content have a long list of benefits, but without one, chances are you’re breaking the law.

At the end of the day, you want as many people to enjoy your content as possible, and in order to do that, you must include those who may be visually impaired.

When you’re ready to record your audio description, learn how easy it is to record audio on a Mac.

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