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Changing the narrative with audio description

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It’s a stormy summer evening and two picnickers are watching the sun set over the ocean. One is filled with joy, moved by what she sees. The other expresses worry as the dark storm clouds roll in.

No two people will ever witness a scene in exactly the same way. Cultural bias, personal preference and life experience all impact the way we view the world around us. This can present interesting challenges for those whose job it is to narrate the visual.

Curtin Associate Professor Katie Ellis has been researching the art of narration through her work into audio description.

“Audio description (AD) is a track of narration between lines of dialogue that describes important visual elements of a television show or movie, to audiences who are blind or vision impaired,” she explains.

“But it’s very cultural. For example, the American style of AD is really over-the-top exciting and very descriptive, while the English style is much more reserved. They’ll just describe the picture and leave it up to the audience to interpret emotion.”


Is AD available in Australia?

Audio description has been around for years, but Australia remains the only English-speaking country in the OECD not to offer the service on free-to-air television.

“Many people are unaware the technology exists as it’s not available on television,” Ellis says. “And it’s not on television perhaps because people don’t know what it is. It’s a catch-22 situation.”

Audio through the ages

The first regular recorded instance of AD occurred in the 1940s, when a Spanish radio presenter began narrating films on the radio. But it would be several more decades before the technology became popular.

In the 1960s, avid Star Trek fans, keen to expand the reach of their favourite television show, began recording narrated versions on cassette to share with blind and vision-impaired audiences. Their initiative soon led to widespread use and uptake of AD.

But the conversation is changing. In 2017, the Federal Government convened the Audio Description Working Group to discuss options for introducing AD to Australian screens. Ellis and fellow Associate Professor Mike Kent are the only two academics to take part. The group have released a report which recommends three possible delivery options – via free-to-air television, on catch-up online portals, or via a secondary app that could be synced with audio during television viewing.

“There’s been a lot of progress,” Ellis says. “The Minister for Communications wrote to all the broadcasters and asked them to start looking into ways to introduce audio description. AD is now available on Netflix, Stan and Apple TV. You can access it on flights with Qantas and Virgin and we’re even seeing it used at live events.”

DADAA (Disability in the Arts Disadvantage in the Arts) is one organisation leading the charge.

“DADAA is really pushing boundaries in this space,” Ellis says. “They’re audio describing festivals, fireworks, parades of sports teams who have won grand finals. You go to the event and DADAA have an app that you can download and use on your phone – or they can provide a phone for you.

“For the Australia Day fireworks in Perth, they have a quiet space set up on the banks of the river specifically for those who are blind or vision impaired.

“We’re definitely making progress – I even heard of an audio described drag show in Adelaide!”


Spreading the word

While AD is broadly recognised as benefitting the vision-impaired community, it has advantageous applications for many other groups, including those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), students, language learners and even ardent television fans.

“Something I find very interesting about AD is its ability to give you information about what’s on screen that you may otherwise miss,” Ellis explains.

“Describing emotion can be very helpful to people with ASD – as well as narrating other cues they might miss out on.”

Ellis is quick to point out that AD is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

“We recently worked with an ASD focus group and they had different perspectives on what was useful. Some people said that AD, in addition to captions, could be sensory overload.

“So it’s about providing information in different ways and then giving people the option of whether or not they want to access those channels.”

Ellis says AD has proved popular among TV enthusiasts who use the technology to enhance their own viewing.

“These days we’re binge-watching a lot of complex shows,” she says. “You might not realise while watching Daredevil that there is someone over the shoulder of the main character wearing a red cape, or there may be particular emotions you don’t pick up on.

“People on Twitter said the only way they could make sense of the show Sense8 was through listening to audio description. It can introduce character names you otherwise wouldn’t know for several episodes and can connect the story together in a way that you might miss.”

As well as changing and shaping the way we consume content, AD can also add rich layers of character.

“Australian filmmaking is very visual,” Ellis explains. “Thanks to audio description of Australian cinema, we’re seeing how the landscape becomes another character within the show.”


A captive audience

Alongside research into AD, Ellis and a team that includes Associate Professor Mike Kent, Dr Leanne McRae, Dr Gwyneth Peaty, Kathryn Locke and Kai-Ti Kao, are exploring the use of captions as a learning tool.

“We’re currently looking at how students use captions and whether or not students without hearing impairments derive benefit from them too,” Ellis reveals.

“We’ve captioned lectures for certain units and noticed students are using the captions to search for keywords to help them revise. It’s also been useful if the lecturer has a strong accent or speaks very quickly.”

Ellis is a passionate advocate for making content accessible to all.

“Everyone learns in different ways – some people are more visual and others more oral, so it’s really important to provide different options for accessing information.

“Thanks to captions and the increasing use of audio description, I’m feeling really positive about where we’re headed.”

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