In this post and video I want to describe what audio description is, how it is useful for the blind and visually impaired, and why it’s high time we should be able to add it to Youtube videos. This is in support of the #AudioDescribeYT campaign, launched by James Rath.
The #AudioDescribeYT campaign is basically asking Youtube to allow people to add audio description to their videos, because it would be extremely useful for people who are blind and partially sighted.
Youtube has made some progress with accessibility already, because they already allow you to add closed captions (subtitles) to your videos. This provides a text version of the audio to people who are deaf and hard of hearing, or anyone else who finds it hard to understand what’s being said. It can also tell them about any significant noises or pieces of music that they would otherwise miss. In addition, captions are also used to translate videos into other languages, which is really useful even if you can hear. So captions really help to make your videos more accessible to a wider audience, and I’ve been adding captions to all of my videos for that reason.
I’ve also tried out the community contributions feature to add subtitles to a few videos by Emily Davison over at Fashioneyesta, whose channel I strongly recommend you check out. She’s a wonderful disability campaigner, who has made loads of great videos and blog posts discussing issues faced by visually impaired people and disabled people in general, and posts a lot about beauty and fashion as well. She really knows her stuff, so do please check her out, including her blog and Twitter, as well as her Youtube Channel. She gave me a very flattering shoutout, so I’m more than happy to return the favour!
So all in all, captions are great. But they’re of no use whatsoever to people who are blind or partially sighted. If you can hear a video, but you can’t see it, then it becomes a very different experience, because you don’t know what’s going on. The video at the top of this post includes examples to illustrate the point, showing how adding audio description makes one of my videos much more accessible to blind and partially sighted people. It allows them to understand and enjoy it, and also allows me to broaden my potential audience.
Of course you have to be careful where you add the description and what you say. You have to be brief and concise, focusing only on the key points. And you can’t talk over anybody else that’s talking in the video, so you have to add description when there are suitable gaps. So it’s not quite as easy as it might sound, and some describers are better than others. But when you get it right, it is very useful indeed.
But this is where the problem lies, because Youtube does not currently give you the ability to add audio description, or indeed any type of alternative audio tracks for viewers to choose between. The best you can do is upload multiple versions of the same clip, but that takes up time and bandwidth for creators, and looks confusing and untidy to their subscribers.
There is an independent website called YouDescribe.org, which allows volunteers to add descriptions to Youtube clips. But it’s not very well known, and you have to watch the videos via that site, which means you can’t like or comment on them, or subscribe to the people who made them. So it’s a useful idea, but it’s not very convenient. Audio description should really be available on Youtube itself.
After all, audio description is readily available for many other types of media. Not as widely as it could or should be, and it’s not suitable for absolutely everything, but it’s increasingly common. So Youtube are very much behind the times right now.
For instance, audio description is widely available on TV these days. You’ll see it marked in TV guides with the AD symbol, just like you get S for subtitles. The descriptive audio is broadcast as a separate track, which some TVs may allow you to access on its own, if you know which button to push. Again, I’ve shown examples of audio description on TV in the video at the top of this post.
So in order for it to work properly, you need a TV or a set-top box that is capable of accessing and combining the description track with the main audio of the programme. Panasonic and Samsung are two companies in particular who sell TVs with both audio description and voice guided menus.
Online catchup services like BBC iPlayer and Channel 4, and other streaming services like iTunes and Netflix, also offer audio described content. And many cinemas and theatres also offer audio description services, by giving you special headphones that you can wear during the film or the stage performance. Again, it’s not available for everything, but it’s a good start. You can look at sites like VocalEyes, Mind’s Eye, Accessible Screenings and Your Local Cinema for more information on that.
Some DVDs and Blu-Ray discs also offer audio description, although it can be quite difficult to find discs that offer it sometimes. I’m often mystified when audio description is available for something you see on TV, but that description track is not then copied over to the DVD release. As it is, DVDs and Blu-Rays already use multiple audio tracks for a variety of reasons – such as surround sound, stereo sound, audio commentaries, alternative languages, music-only tracks and so on. So all they need to do is add an audio description track as well.
The best examples I’ve seen of this are the box sets released for Doctor Who and Sherlock by the BBC. Not only do they offer audio description on the episodes themselves, but they also give you audio navigation for the menu system, which is fantastic. DVD menus can be a nightmare when you can’t see, especially if you want to select particular episodes or special features. I appreciate there must be technical challenges in incorporating a second menu system, but it’s well worth it, I think it works very well. I’ve put examples of this in the video at the top of this post.
So if audio description is available on all of these other platforms, it seems very strange that the boffins at Google haven’t managed to add it to Youtube yet. I know it would be a technical challenge, but it can’t be impossible. After all, they can already interfere with your audio by replacing it with a music track from their library if you ask them to. So it really is something they should look into, because audio description would make it much easier for blind and partially sighted people to access and enjoy the huge amount of content on the site.
So thank you for reading this post, I hope you found it interesting. If you would like to help get the message out there, then please feel free to make your own videos or blog posts, or share and retweet content by others about the campaign, using the hashtag #AudioDescribeYT.
Here are links to some other videos that people have made about the campaign, along with various websites and articles on the subject of audio description, so you can get other views and information about it:
The Blind Spot – Audio Description
Audio Description Information:
Audio Described Online Content:
Audio Described Theatre & Cinema:
#AudioDescribe YT Hashtag: