What is Audio Description?

Multimedia content is everywhere on the web. YouTube has single handedly transformed it into a global pastime, and everybody’s at it. Armed with a webcam and a bright idea, everyone’s free to broadcast themselves.

Knowing about audio description, captions and transcripts, is the key to accessible multimedia. In the first of a series of articles on multimedia accessibility, we take a look at audio description.

Audio description

Audio description is an extra narrative that’s mixed in with the original soundtrack. In the gaps between the existing dialogue and sound effects, someone describes the important visual action taking place on screen.

The best way to understand how it works is to see it in action. You can find a short audio described clip on the Sky Accessibility website.

Extended audio description

Extended audio description is similar, but it means that more detailed descriptions can be provided. Sometimes the spaces between the dialogue and sound effects aren’t long enough to describe what’s happening on screen.

Extended audio description pauses the video to allow time for a more detailed description to be given. When the description is done, the video resumes playing.

Who benefits from audio description?

Blind and partially sighted people benefit most clearly from audio description. A good audio described soundtrack will describe characters, scene changes, and on screen text. People with cognitive disabilities might also find this information helps them process visual content more easily.

WCAG 2.0 success criteria

There are three success criteria under the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 that deal with audio description:

  • 1.2.3 (Level A) Audio description or media alternatives (pre-recorded).
  • 1.2.5 (Level AA) Audio description (pre-recorded).
  • 1.2.7 (Level AAA) Extended audio description (pre-recorded).

There’s a bit of overlap with these three success criteria. Effectively they build on top of each other, and in doing so increase the conformance level that can be achieved.

1.2.3 Audio description or media alternatives

This success criterion means you can provide either a transcript, or audio description for the multimedia content on your page. So if you want to meet Level A, you can choose which one to provide.

1.2.5 Audio description

This success criterion builds on 1.2.3. If you have multimedia content on your page, you need to provide audio description.

The good news is that if you’ve provided audio description in order to meet 1.2.3, you’ve already met this success criterion too. Either way, to achieve Level AA you’ll need to provide audio description for this success criterion.

1.2.7 Extended Audio Description

This success criterion builds on both 1.2.3 and 1.2.5. It introduces the idea of extended audio description, but the chances are that you’ve already met this Level AAA success criterion without realising it.

If you provided a transcript to meet 1.2.3, and audio description to meet 1.2.5, then you’ve already met this success criterion as well. The transcript replaces the need for an extended audio description.

If you provided only audio description to meet both 1.2.3 and 1.2.5, then you’ll need to provide extended audio description to meet this success criterion. Before you get that far, it’s worth understanding when any of these success criteria apply.

When should audio description be used?

All of these success criteria relate to pre-recorded multimedia, so you don’t need to worry about audio description for live streams. If you later archive a live stream on your site though, you’ll need to think about audio description at that point.

If all of the relevant information is available through the original soundtrack, you don’t need to provide audio description. For example, if your video is a talking head (someone talking straight at camera), then the chances are that all the important information is included in the soundtrack.

Creating audio description

When you’re thinking about audio description, you’ll need to do a bit of planning. You’ll need to take the original multimedia, and make a note of all the action that takes place on screen. You’ll then need to work out where the gaps between dialogue and sound effects occur, and how long they last.

With that information, you’ll be able to write an audio description script. This is something of an art form, because you need to balance the right amount of description with the spaces you have in the original soundtrack. If you’re finding it difficult to get this right, it could be time to think about extended audio description instead. Either way, you might want to think about getting in a professional company to record the alternate soundtrack for you.

Audio description is possibly the most difficult alternative format to provide. It takes time, resources, and often money to accomplish. The value in doing it is substantial though.

Next time you’re watching television, close you’re eyes for a while. Try to keep track of what’s happening, who’s talking, and what’s going on. That’s how much of your multimedia content your audience could be missing!

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