My experience of audio described arts and culture, by Amy Stannard

Amy Stannard contacted VocalEyes with her response to our article Digital theatre and audio description: what do users want?, giving us an insight into her experience – as a blind person with a hearing impairment  – of audio description at theatres and cinemas. Her email went on to cover cultural content on TV, museum websites and arts organisations on YouTube. As we read, we realised that this was something that everyone working in the arts and cultural sector should read, so we asked Amy if we could publish her email as an article.

As a deaf and blind person I would like to explain what problems I have with AD currently. I rely heavily on audio description for TV and movies downloaded on apps, as well as at theatres, but since I lost hearing in one ear I can no longer go, as I have trouble hearing both the actual performance and the audio description in equal measure.

For performances, as I said I can’t hear stuff, so the theatre has become out of bounds for me, so to be able to hear things over the internet and stop missing stuff as I have been, would be great for me as I do miss the theatre hugely, and loved seeing musicals when I was younger. The reason I can’t, is because the way it is done in the theatre is not as easy to hear as the system used in cinema. In the cinema I have my hearing aid in one ear listening to the film and the headphone in the other to get the audio description: this does not work as well in the theatre because of the way it is live and transmitted, making it impossible for me to hear.

To be able to have the audio description on my phone through download or through the website, so I can download it myself, would be really great because then I could alter the volume and other settings that would make it much more accessible. I would love it if we could get the pre-descriptions about the set, costumes and other things, as trying to listen to this just before the performance when everyone is still moving around has never worked that well for me as the system constantly breaks up in theatres.

I think that changing voices is unnecessary but having a choice between a male and female voice would be really useful as I hear male voices better than women’s voices. I definitely want description of costumes and sets as I like having as much as possible. If you were to have downloadable tracks you would have to make sure they were made with accessibility in mind, not just iPhone and Android, but JAWS and other accessible text-to-speech programs so it was available to as many as possible, but have an alternative for those who don’t use technology.

The problem I have with live streams as a deaf person is they are often recorded from a distance or at a volume that is far too low for me to hear so I don’t get any benefit and don’t get to enjoy them. I do like the BBC when they have streamed a couple of things but usually and annoyingly, they are without description. YouTube, which is the format a lot of museums, galleries and theatres use, is particularly difficult for me as things are recorded at different volumes and in varying quality. It takes a lot of trying and time sifting through to find a few items out of the loads that I can actually hear, before I even get to the point of discovering if audio description is lacking, as is usually the case. With the exception of visually impaired groups and societies putting up material, very little on YouTube is accessible to me at all. Those who put recordings up on their website or Facebook pages also have no AD and record at such a low volume that even if they had, I would not be able to hear it.

TV and streaming platforms

With TV and movies both how much and what is described varies greatly from platform to platform, and is plagued by ridiculous mistakes. It also depends on what category is described, with movies and TV dramas being very rarely described across BBC, Sky and Amazon Prime Video but it is a different story when it comes to documentaries. Animal programs on the BBC are very well done, with a wide range available, but on other platforms are either not done at all or if they are, are done very badly with lots left out. History is even more patchy, with BBC being very good to absolutely useless from programme to programme. Art history programmes are even worse. A prime example was the Museums in Quarantine series where because the programme was so short and there was so much talking, the only AD we got consistently was the name of the painting and the year is was made, but very little of what was actually in the painting. A couple of times it said ‘walking into another gallery’ when that slot could have been better used to tell us more about what was in the painting. Sometime we got the image described in sparse detail but had to wait until the narrator was talking to find what the main person in the painting (if a portrait) was wearing, or the colour and symbols or images in the painting was mentioned, and work things out from there.

This is however not exclusive to short programs but longer arts and history documentaries mainly on BBC, as the other platforms rarely if ever show this kind of stuff with AD and if they do it is usually so bad it is not even worth listening to, for example anything on Channel 5.

Channel 4 have done content with audio description and it is has been useful, but again has had some glaring problems with what they actually choose to audio describe and how it is done. They tend just to say ‘ruins’, or ‘picture of…’ without actually describing what is in the picture or what the object is in detail.

The biggest failing that all platforms make  is when they use digital reconstructions, which is increasingly common in documentaries, which makes things extremely frustrating as we get no detail of what it looks like or what is being shown. Also, in a lot of documentaries of all types the AD will waste time on useless detail, such as ‘they are driving up to the museum, or building’ without giving us any AD about the museum or historic building itself, instead choosing to tell us that it is raining outside or that the person doing the narrating is climbing out of a tank or some other nonsense. This is particularly annoying in history programmes, where what you want to know is what the historical building, museum, ruin or object actually looks like.

Museum websites

The move to online in recent weeks has thrown up a different set of problems when dealing with AD and descriptions attached to objects and paintings. So much so that I have been contacting museum after museum telling them about the problems I have had with each of their sites and the lack of access. Every museum or gallery’s website is different, of course, but two things I come across again and again are virtual tours or videos without audio description, making it impossible for a blind person to use. Even worse, videos that have no speech whatsoever, making them useless. Even videos where there is someone talking are recorded far too low in volume for those like me who are hearing impaired.

When it comes to objects in collections, just accessing the collections takes a lot of work and a lot of trial and error, as they all use different ways to access, some a lot more straightforward than others. When I get to the painting or object, the amount of description in the text attached to the work varies dramatically from object to object and museum to museum. With some lacking key things such as size, colour, description of material, I have had to ask my friend to have a look at the images and tell me more over FaceTime. Even where is loads of information about an object, like Leeds Museums and Galleries / Lotherton Making Japan online exhibition, I still ask my friend to look at the objects and give me more detail as the museum can’t seem to get it into their heads that a blind person still wants to know about patterns, colours and symbolism in objects and paintings.

Contact us on [email protected] if you want help providing audio description for your museum or heritage site’s video or virtual tours. We also provide a service for digital AD for theatre performances.