Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Audio Description

When I lived in Milwaukee, I became involved in a volunteer program - Audio Description. Audio Description is for the blind and visually impaired what Signing is for the deaf and hard of hearing. An Audio Describer will be in the light booth or some other out-of-the-way place in the theatre, talking to the audience member through a headset, describing what’s going on onstage. “He’s creeping towards her with a knife in his left hand. She is looking in another direction, and doesn't see him behind her. He raises the knife…” You get the idea.

It's a more complicated process than you might think, and took a fair amount of training. For instance, your job as a describer was to simply describe what you were seeing - not to make interpretive judgements. For instance, I would tell you that someone is smiling - not that they're happy. Physical descriptions were interesting, too, since politically correct terms like African-American mean little to nothing to someone who has been blind since birth. However, if I tell you that he's a tall man, of slender build, with short, curly black hair, brown eyes, and medium brown skin, you can get a mental picture of the actor.

We actually had to audition to be a volunteer, since they wanted to make sure that you had a decent vocabulary and a pleasant speaking voice. A new employee at the sponsoring organization, having met the group of us for the first time, commented that she had never met a group of women with such low voices. (We all have rather deep, throaty voices, which I suppose is easier to listen to for two hours than someone with a high, squeaky voice.)

It was a wonderful experience and something I’d like to do again. (I haven’t been able to do so since we left Milwaukee.) Segue to this month’s issue of Computers in Libraries.

The Alliance Library System in Illinois has decided to have audio descriptions added to their historical photographs, making them accessible to the blind and visually impaired. The Illinois Alive website has a few lovely photographs, which seem to come alive when described. This is the coolest thing I’ve seen in a while, and I’m thrilled that someone thought to combine the wonders of digitization and the access of Audio Description.

It makes me wonder what else we could describe.


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