Audio description: Yes! And ...
By Judith Jones
As an audio describer, I’m always interested in how to develop and deliver the richest, most meaningful experience. I’ve been researching how some practitioners are working in the realm of ‘enhancing’ or ‘integrating’ the audio description.
This resource introduces a few of the key players I have found that are challenging and extending what is possible for the experience of audio description to deliver for audiences. Many are in the performing arts sector, or in television or film. However, their explorations of dynamic, resonant and inclusive audio description are totally relevant as we reflect on all our practice.
Within this selection, I’ve chosen to feature how individuals and companies express their thoughts about themselves, their work and their approaches.
Disabled artists and description practitioners are at the forefront of developing new multi-faceted ways to offer an inclusive audience experience. There are so many ways of bringing Audio description – Yes! And…. into this interdisciplinary way of thinking.
First I want to feature the work of Yo-Yo Lin 林友友, an interdisciplinary media artist. Here’s a quote from the video Interdisciplinary Practice Is a Disabled Practice:
“I learned from being in disability community, that most disabled artists are interdisciplinary, because of the nature of our evolving bodies and the ways we move through the world. We’re always adapting and figuring out ways to make things work. Interdisciplinary practice is a disabled practice.”
1. Yo-Yo Lin 林友友
“A Taiwanese-American, interdisciplinary media artist who explores the possibilities of self-knowledge in the context of emerging, embodied technologies. She often uses video, animation, live performance, and lush sound design to create meditative ‘memoryscapes.’ Her recent body of work reveals and re-values the complex realities of living with chronic illness and intergenerational trauma.” Yo-Yo Lin url for link https://www.yoyolin.com/
Artist Yo-Yo Lin: Interdisciplinary Practice Is a Disabled Practice | SEEN
'Through dance and through movement I was able to build an understanding of my body' — Interdisciplinary artist Yo-Yo Lin uses art as a way for people to better understand themselves AND each other.
Video information includes a video description: Yo-Yo Lin: Interdisciplinary Practice Is a Disabled Practice
“As an interdisciplinary artist, Lin uses different media to process the trauma of chronic illness and create a visual semantic that encompasses her experiences of disability and cultural multiplicity. The director’s hypnotic narration throughout Re:collections folds Chinese and English into sonorous imagery, amplified by a soundtrack composed of sounds Lin captured while in Taiwan.”
Link: Re:collections | NOWNESS
2. The Paradis Files
This is the first chamber opera to be created and performed by Deaf and disabled artists. All performances creatively integrated BSL, captioning and audio description. “Maria Theresia Von Paradis (Austria, 1759-1824) was a celebrated composer, pianist and singer who gave concerts in Austria and across Europe. A contemporary of Mozart and Salieri, she was known as The Blind Enchantress. Graeae and The Stables bring to life the untold story of this extraordinary woman.”
For the AD Show Notes, the cast of The Paradis Files describe the set and stage, and give a detailed overview of the opera scene by scene.
Graeae's Artistic Director, Jenny Sealey and Andrea Brown, Musical Director and Conductor reflect on the show and the impact it's had, in a video from April 2023.
“Maria Theresia von Paradis’s piano bewitched the Viennese court – but she was tormented by quacks proffering remedies she didn’t need. Now a disabled theatre team are turning her life into opera.” Article from The Guardian, April 2022.
“Experimental, disabled-led theatre company Graeae here give us their first opera.” Review in The Guardian, April 2022.
3. Susan Williams
“Tragedy! Hardship!! Inspiration!!! This. Is. NOT. That. Show. [Bats Theatre, December 2021]
“Susan is a perfectly normal queer, fat, functionally blind, Autistic, chronically and mentally ill, nonbinary person, who just happens to be collecting diagnoses faster than they collect eel facts. In this not-so-solo solo show, Susan just wants to get stuff done. Instead, they end up on an epic quest, battling sock-puppets, ableist audio-describers, a pile of laundry, and people who don’t provide digital copies of important documents.”
“Illegally Blind is very accessible to disabled people, including: Inbuilt audio description and captions. Relaxed performances. Informal seating with beanbags, blankets, armless chairs and wheelchair space. Comforting and stimmy snacks, tea and (Covid permitting) stim toys.”
Attitude – Being me: Susan
“Non-binary performance artist Susan Williams adores theatre. Their latest show, Illegally Blind, is based on their experience living with Visual Snow Syndrome - a rare form of blindness.” Short film first broadcast 8 May 2022. Available on Attitude with audio description option.
Link: Being me: Susan
Illegally Blind – accessible theatre in action
“… in our show, the audio description is part of the narrative because we knew we were going to have it and that everyone in the show would hear it – the same with the subtitles that came along only a little later than that.”
“… we belong, and we belong at every stage. Adding access will always improve a show, because we belong as creators and actors and audiences, and our stories are so important. The way we tell stories is really important! “
Accessibility integral to Illegally Blind show
“Susan is an actor, comedian, and improvisor, has been performing in shows for 20 years, and has a certificate and diploma in performing arts.“
They were a finalist in Arts Access Aotearoa’s PAK’n’SAVE Artistic Achievement Award 2021 and have directed Galactapedia, a New Zealand Improv Festival show that was fully accessible to blind audiences.
“We’re creating a show where accessibility is the opposite of what it usually is. Illegally Blind isn’t just accessible: it’s more accessible for blind and low vision people. The props and set are representations, not the actual items, and can only be accurately imagined through the audio description and subtitles.”
4. Sarah Houbolt
Uneven paths, for the Biennale of Sydney 2020 – about Sarah and the work
“Sarah Houbolt is a Paralympian turned international circus and physical theatre performer, entertainer and activist. Her award-winning work includes championing disability arts narratives and history, reclaiming the freak show and exploring aesthetics of access. Sarah is a thought leader and provocateur and investigates multisensory creative responses according to her unique experience.”
“My body is not the same as yours. When we walk down the street, I doubt we’ll have the same experience of walking down the street. But we each have something to offer in communicating our version. Do we ever stop to really talk about it? How do I really know I’m different to you? Am I? We are all human. Let me tell you the story of my own journey, in the heart of our city, from the National Art School to the Art Gallery of New South Wales to Artspace and my attempt to get back again.’
Link: Sarah Houbolt: being bold and taking leaps (Arts Access Aotearoa article, August 2011)
5. Amelia Cavallo
“Amelia Cavallo is a queer, blind multi-disciplinary theatre practitioner. As a performer, they work as an actor, singer, musician, circus aerialist, dancer, drag king and burlesque performer. For Graeae, Amelia has been seen in productions including The Threepenny Opera and The Garden. They have also worked in academia, teaching and consulting on audio description.”
Case study film
A new series of short films made by filmpro and presented by Rinkoo Barpaga, focusing on the careers of fascinating Deaf and disabled artists.
Disability Arts and Access in the Digital Age: Amelia Cavallo
In this Disability Arts Online video Amelia Cavallo “discusses audio description as an innovative creative tool for digital art applications”.
The Radical Potential of Integrated Audio Description
“In the eighth in our [Disability Arts Online] series of artist presentations blind theatre practitioner Amelia Cavallo introduces some of the ways to think about integrating audio description into various types of performance. This will be a space for people to learn what audio description is, how it supports blind and visually impaired people, and ways that it can be viewed as a creative tool. It will also be a place to ask questions and troubleshoot challenges, especially as performance changes in and around moves towards digital content.”
6. Kinetic Light
Kinetic Light is “is a disability arts ensemble: We are led by disabled artists; disabled artists create, design, and perform the work; our work speaks to and emerges from disability aesthetics and disability culture; our work is connected to the rich traditions and exciting contemporary conversations of disabled artists in all artistic fields.”
Link: Kinetic Light
“Our approach to access stems from years of learning, conversing, and working; it comes from trusted relationships with fellow disabled artists and disability communities; it also comes from a commitment to engage deeply with emerging research, tech, and design. This approach has changed how we understand ourselves and our work.
“We now know that, at its core, dance is not a visual artform. It is primarily a kinesthetic artform. And this understanding has freed us to think differently about how we create access and how access creates the work. At Kinetic Light performances, audiences are invited into a world where dance is equitably, aesthetically revealed across a broad experiential spectrum which includes sound, light, and movement.
“We create many entry points and ways of experiencing the work, all of which welcome disabled audiences in our many bodyminds and ways of being.”
Detailed information about access for and in Wired, including Audio Description info & description samples.
One + One Make Three
An introduction to the several accessible versions of One + One Make Three, presented as part of the Past, Present, Future festival
“Kinetic Light’s docu-dance film One + One Make Three is shared in several versions: Each is the same work, and each provides a different encounter. We encourage you to choose an experience that will be most accessible or enjoyable for you, and if you want to spend more time with us, to experience multiple versions of the film, or one version multiple ways.
“You can select your experience: with or without ASL, Open Captions, or Audio Description, or even as audio or text alone.”
Link: One + One Make Three
Media about Kinetic Light
This list of media coverage is itself a starter kit for exploring more about audio description in different sorts of action, and meeting some of the key players.
Link: Kinetic Light press
For example: Lighter than Air: The members of disability arts company Kinetic Light discuss collaboration and kinship.
Link: Lighter than Air
7. The Enhancing Audio Description (EAD) II project
“… seeks to explore the potential of sound design practices and spatial audio to provide accessible film and television experiences for visually impaired audiences. It fuses audio technology and creativity to widen the notion of media accessibility and increase the quality and quantity of provision, providing cutting edge techniques to the UK cultural sector.”
“The project proposes a new paradigm in accessible experiences, in which there is not an overreliance on a narrator's spoken word, as in traditional audio description practices. Instead it utilises new accessibility features that include: the addition of sound effects, the spatialisation of dialogue and sounding objects, and first-person narration, to provide accessible experiences that are seamlessly integrated to the soundtrack of a film or television programme. These techniques are integrated into film and television workflows from the development phase up to final delivery.”
Journal publications, conferences papers and presentation, press, podcasts, videos.
Link: EAD Project Outputs
Principal Investigator: Dr Mariana López
“a Senior Lecturer in Sound Production and Post Production at the Department of Theatre, Film, Television and Interactive Media at University of York, where she has been working since 2016. She has a background in music, sound design and acoustics.”
Link: Dr Mariana Lopez
“a short film (Palumbo, 2014) whose soundtrack was redesigned as part of our project in 2016. The soundtrack uses the EAD principles to provide an accessible experience for visually impaired audiences, that is based on creative sound design practices, including binaural audio and first person narration.”
8. Reid My Mind: podcast from Thomas Reid
“Stories and profiles of compelling people impacted by all degrees of blindness and disability. Plus, Reid explores his own experiences in his own unique way pairing his words with music and sound design.”
Link: Reid My Mind podcast
Flipping the script on audio description
“When it comes to Audio Description, are we listening between the lines? There’s so much more to AD than what we hear. So, today on the podcast, we’re going to expand who we actually hear from on the topic. There are the “experts” but there are plenty more with something really valuable to contribute. Like, Alejandra Ospina, Liz Thomson & Chanelle Carson who share their expertise on the subject.
“Sometimes you just have to Flip the Script to hear what’s on the other side!”
Link: Flipping the script
9. Who Am I To Stop It – Cheryl Green
“Cheryl Green is an independent Access Artist with a focus as a captioner, audio describer, and multi-media digital artist. She brings her lived experience with multiple invisible disabilities to creating media that explores politically- and culturally-engaged stories from cross-disability communities.”
Link: Cheryl Green
Cheryl works with Kinetic Light and created two of the scripts for Wired: “two tracks of tightly-written poetic prose. In the first, Cheryl captures the movement and emotional heart of Wired. In the second, she shares the details and emotion of the lighting and projections.”
“A pigeonhole can be a comfy place to take refuge if you want it. But too often, society tries to put us in a box and demand we sit in it quietly and gratefully. No thanks.”
Pigeonhole Podcast 38: May be image of cup “If you want your film or visual arts to be creative, interesting, and unique, why wouldn’t you want the language-based translation of it to be creative and interesting and unique?”
“Even I’m still grappling with a question Thomas Reid asks me all the time, “Yeah, that’s what it looks like, but how did it make you feel when you looked at it?” It’s the perfect question to counter the old-school “say what you see” method of Audio Description that sounds like it’s trying to pretend to be objective.
“As a describer, you have the power to pick which things you saw that you want to say something about and how you want to say it. Neutrality is impossible. Your culture, your values, your politics, and your desires to be creative or not are always at play.”
Who Am I To Stop It in the press, and other disability culture work
A deep dive in to a range of perspectives about Cheryl’s work and approach.
“A non-profit society, registered charity and the first live descriptive arts service for the blind in Canada.” VocalEye website
VocalEye Almost Live 2022
“Most Wednesday evenings at 6:30 pm PT via Zoom | Free to register! January 19 to July 27, 2022
“We are thrilled to continue our exciting season of accessible online arts adventures that include a variety of described performance videos (theatre, opera, dance), festival highlights, visual art tours, storytelling, described film screenings and cultural tours that you can enjoy from the comfort of your own home, free of charge via the magic of Zoom. We’re also thrilled to present the full season of audio plays from our partners at the Arts Club Theatre, plus selected weekend matinée virtual performances from our partners at the Belfry Theatre.
“Most events are recorded in whole or in part and posted on the VocalEye YouTube channel.”
“This page-in-progress contains links to information and resources related to description and arts accessibility for people with vision loss.”
Link: VocalEye resources
11. The Crowder
Happening April to June 2022.
“CROWDER definition: a diverse group of describers who provide visual details and personal impressions of the same artwork from their own unique point of view. Their descriptions are combined to create a verbal kaleidoscope of perspectives that can be communicated to people who are blind, partially sighted or sighted, providing a rich, multi-layered understanding and experience of the artwork.
“VocalEye is excited to launch our third Crowd-Sourced Description Project: describing selected murals from the Vancouver Mural Festival! Help us make public art more accessible by sharing your own unique perspective with the blind and partially sighted community. Each month, you’ll have the opportunity to describe as many as 8 different murals from Vancouver Mural Fest. No experience or research needed!
“The idea behind this project is to combine many different points of view, creating a rich layering of diverse perspectives, rather than one “authoritative” description of an artwork. There’s nothing wrong with that “authoritative” description, but the artwork is also this, and this, and this, and this, too.”
Includes resources about “slow looking”. More on VocalEye’s work follows.
Link: Join The Crowder
12. Kayla Hamilton
“Movement artist Kayla Hamilton is breaking barriers for Black women and girls while encouraging artists to make their work more accessible.”
Disability Creates Possibility
“I guess I’m really interested in like, how we can de-centre sight, as like, dance’s primary mode of consumption. How do I get people to feel, and to be present with me, with the absence of sight.”
Link: Video information includes a video description. Movement Artist Kayla Hamilton: 'Disability Creates Possibility' | SEEN
Do I Need to Name It?
Stance on Dance article. Image description from the page: Kayla is depicted standing in the left upper corner of the image facing back and looking over her left shoulder. Her eyes appear closed and blue glasses hang low on her face. Her right foot is hooked behind her left calf. She is wearing gray. Red swirls of energy decorate the space around her, along with the quotes, “…my privilege…my disability is not apparent…” and, “It’s evident in the work I create, but do I need to name it?”
13. Christopher Unpezverde Núñez
“I am a visually impaired choreographer and dramaturg tracing the ideological narratives contained in immigrant and disabled bodies. From the autobiographical, my work explores how imagination constructs meaning and personal mythology from the devastating events, violence and trauma experienced during my childhood in Central America.
“My Audio Description practice is manifested through storytelling, as a form of resistance, preservation, cultural continuity, and perseverance. As Costa Rican born, of Nicaraguan and Garífuna descent, my inspiration comes from experiences of displacement, family migratory journeys, herbal medicine, indigenous dances, craftsmanship and folktales and how they intertwine with disability. My choreography nurtures spaces for immigrant, disabled, and undocumented Latin American ancestry to flourish and be celebrated.”
Memories of a Disabled Child: The Real, The Imaginary and The Misunderstood
“Memories of a Disabled Child is a triptych composed of “YO OBSOLETE“, “A Garden in the Shape of Dreams” and “A Fuzzy Yellow Spot“. It delves into disability, childhood memories, trauma, and imagination. The series spans through different mediums including dance performance, film, installation, photography, audio description and writing.”
Do note: work "delves into disability, childhood memories, and trauma”.
14. The Circus Diaries: Circus Thoughts From Circus People
“These vlogs chart Kate’s [Katharine Kavanagh’s] experience in 2018 devising creative integrated audio description during the Circus Sessions residency in Toronto.”
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Let’s add to it over time. If you have thoughts about who else is creating this work and should be included in this resource, please email Stace Robertson, Access, Inclusion and Participation Advisor, Arts Access Aotearoa.
Judith Jones was the recipient of the Arts Access Accolade 2020, presented at Te Putanga Toi Arts Access Awards 2020. She is a member of the Arts For All Wellington Network and of WIDance.
Connect through music: this video was made by Lala Rolls of Island Productions Aotearoa for Arts Access Aotearoa and Chamber Music New Zealand.
Access for all: “The good thing about being focused on access and accessibility is that you create a better experience for everybody,” says Philip Patston in this video, made by Lala Rolls of Island Productions Aotearoa for Arts Access Aotearoa.