Skip to Main Content View Text-Only

The City of Portland, Oregon

Community & Civic Life

Promote the common good

Main: 503-823-4519

City/County Info: 503-823-4000

TDD: 503-823-6868

1221 SW 4th Ave, Suite 110, Portland, OR 97204

Subscribe to RSS feed

Most Recent

View Less

April 2019: Adventures in Audio Description

Find out what Audio Description is, why it’s essential to our information, art, and public spaces, and how to weave it into your personal and professional life.

Close up photo of a vibrant orange-red lily, shining with dew.

[Close up photo of a vibrant orange-red lily, shining with dew. The center of the lily is paler, with a tangerine colored stripe running down the center of each petal. The flower is fully open and surrounded by closed green buds. This lily reminds us that details are beautiful.]

Videos are a popular tool in our quest to share clear and engaging information. Videos show what we are trying to tell through recorded presentations, animation, live action film and more.

 And we are trying to tell a lot. We use videos to explore ideas, explain policies, demonstrate new processes, capture proposed projects, and share feedback.

Videos can be entertaining and informative. Video coupled with audio makes information more compelling and understandable.

Live performance is another kind of “visual.” Performance connects people in visceral and creative ways in our individual and collective stories, movements, and ideas.

And it is often the “visuals” in places like museums, parks, and “sight-seeing” tours, that make our experiences so powerful and memorable.

Photo of a Santorini hillside by an ocean at sunset.

[The hillside is covered in white buildings with curved rooves. In the glow of the sunset, the buildings appear blue. Lanterns shining with golden light dot the hillside. In the distance the sun has set, and navy-blue water and indigo hills blend with a horizon that rises from the water in purple, pink, orange and sky blue. Santorini, Greece.]

We expect a lot from our visuals.

And yet, what if we can’t access this compelling, powerful information stream?

Is this power and possibility lost?


We can use Audio Description.

What is Audio Description?

Well, if video is “showing” versus “telling,” Audio Description is telling some of what we are showing. In other words, Audio Description tells the viewer what is happening on screen and onstage when the performers aren’t talking. For an example of how this works and why it is so important, check out What is Audio Description? [VIDEO]

By any other name

Audio Description is also called descriptive narration or video description. Same thing, different name.

Is it really that important?  

Some might imagine that Audio Description isn’t that important. After all, there’s still plenty of dialogue, right? Well, as this adorable and hilarious example of Audio Description shows, that is not always the case.

Olaf, from Disney’s Frozen, gazes down at a bright purple flower with vivid green leaves blooming in 

[Olaf, from Disney’s Frozen, gazes down at a bright purple flower with vivid green leaves blooming in a snow-covered field, an open-mouthed expression of delight on his face. Snow covered evergreens are visible in the background.]

Visuals are ubiquitous for a reason. And if they’re everywhere, let’s make them accessible to as many of us as possible.

The many uses of Audio Description

The usefulness of Audio Description goes beyond supporting folks who aren’t seeing the screen. Ever have the TV on while you’re doing chores? Well, Audio Description benefits you, too. Here's how Audio Description benefits more people than we think.

Where in the world is…Audio Description?!

Audio Description is everywhere! Find it:

And so much more. Be sure to keep an ear out for it!

Describe it!  The key to accessible videos and performances

Audio Description is one of many essential elements of an accessible video, exhibit, or performance. After all, if powerful points are conveyed visually, it’s only fair that as many people as possible have access to this compelling element of the show.

And if the visual elements aren’t important, we could leave them out entirely…right?

Content Equity

Audio Description is part of equitable content. Equity and accessibility are often perceived as “add-ons” or favors to disabled people. In front of and behind the camera, people with disabilities aren’t “add ons” to our society, audience, or filmmaking industry—we’re part of the crowd!

We need to embrace Audio Description as part of the filmmaking process to move towards information and art that is available to everyone.

In the beginning: There is Audio Description

Like all efforts towards equity, Audio Description needs to be part of the planning process of our videos. Then, it is integrated into the budget, and planning for description with the filmmaker allows for description that is both useful and beautiful. After all, shouldn’t Audio Description be as evocative as the images it represents? [PODCAST]

And there’s policy support too!

Here at the City of Portland, we have on-the-books support for building Audio Description into our plans and budgets.

2035 Comprehensive plan

The City’s 2035 Comprehensive Plan, Policy 2.34 calls for accessibility in “community involvement processes involving planning or investment.”

Other parts of the Plan’s Process Design and Evaluation Goals and policies speak to the need for representation, meeting project and culturally-specific needs, accommodation, and tools for effective participation. Audio Described videos and events intersects with all of these.

21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) and Section 508

The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) prescribes specific ways in which Audio Description must be included in broadcast television. And Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act covers videos coming out of Federal agencies.  Accessibility laws tend to expand coverage over time, and it is wise to be ahead of the curve. Speaking of, if you have experience with Audio Description, the FCC is currently taking public comment on the rules networks have to follow regarding description.

 Sunset in Colombia Hills State Park. Rolling green hills with clumps of blue grape hyacinths and yellow black-eyed Susans during sunrise.

[Sunset in Colombia Hills State Park. Rolling green hills with clumps of blue grape hyacinths and yellow black-eyed Susans during sunrise. The blue sky is almost completely blanketed by golden, peach, and pink clouds above. Staying ahead of these curves will be a beautiful journey.]

Our Citywide charge

Every City staff has a responsibility to recognize and remove systemic barriers to “fair and just distribution of resources, access and opportunity,” as reflected in the  Mission Statement of the Office of Equity and Human Rights.

Let’s do it! Planning for Audio Description

We are ready to describe our hearts out!

 Now, wait…How do we actually DO Audio Description?

Fear not. As we touched on before, the first step is planning for Audio Description. And here are some great ideas to get us thinking

  1. Recognize the many ways Audio Descriptions will benefit this particular project, now and in the future.

  2. Consider how Audio Description will fit with other accessibility elements of your video.

  3. Review and update the Audio Description, captions, and language interpretation items in your budget.

  4. Create a plan to promote your Audio Described video in your community and beyond.

  5. Get a sneak peek of what Audio Description is like for a describer.

  6. Integrate this knowledge into your creation:

 Where can we add silence or give extra time in our presentation to allow for vibrant Description? Where could additional silence enhance the experience for everyone?

 7. Decide whether you want to hire a professional or do it yourself. More on this coming next!

Calling in the pros: Why to hire a professional Audio Describer

Audio Description is complex. Describers need to plan meticulously, create a script that accurately, concisely, and thoughtfully conveys the visual.

 And it is a technical skill bursting with nuance. Word choice changes the meaning, sense, and context of a visual. Describers can evoke a completely different scene through their word choice. If someone is walking, for example, they might stroll, stagger, glide, march, stride, amble, or pace.

This requires broad and nuanced vocabulary, technical revision, and skill to describe within the actual structure of dialogue, silence, pause, and sound in the film. Not an easy thing to do.

The complexity above illustrates why Audio Description is a profession with a specific skillset, training, and certification process..

Good Audio Description reflects and conveys the context and meanings of the film. In addition to technical descriptive expertise, cultural awareness is essential [PODCAST]. Our perspective, including what we notice and how we describe things, is impacted by our lived experiences and every aspect of our identity, including race, culture, disability, and more.

Describers are no different, and it’s important to be sure that our describers have the lived experience to notice important things and convey them meaningfully. Audio describers who work in the field are more likely to stay up to date on hot topics and emerging practices, including the most respectful ways to reflect identity and culture within description.

This is another reason it can be so important to work with the creators all along—important elements can be discussed, and the creators can be sure that the Audio Description will convey the essential elements of the work.

Ready to hire a describer? Resources abound! The City of Portland Disability Equity Staff have compiled a list of Audio Description service providers and other accessibility resources [PDF] we know about, including this American Council of the Blind resource list of describers nationwide. No one at the City of Portland or the American Council of the Blind is endorsing any Audio Describer or description company—we just want you to be able to find ‘em when you need ‘em!

For the do-it-yourselfers among us

For folks who are certain they have the technical, cultural, and artistic expertise to create Audio Descriptions for their content, or who just want a behind-the-scenes look at the Audio Description process, here are some places to start:

  1. This article on 508 accessible videos offers three different ways to add Audio Descriptions to a video.
  2. This hour-long talk, What is Audio Description? covers some excellent foundational information, including what Audio Description is, where it applies, and some of the rules for creating description.
  3. And this free, downloadable caption creation and audio-description scriptwriting software (CADET) is one tool that anyone can use to up their caption and Audio Description game. (Google will show you others.)

Souvenirs from our adventure

Our adventures in Audio Description are coming to a close…for now. Let’s share some of the souvenirs we can take home (and show off!) from this trip:

  1. Audio Description is essential for videos and visual content. Without Audio Description, our creations are inaccessible, inequitable, and exclusionary.
  2. Audio Description enhances the experience for more people. It’s useful, fun, and adds depth and nuance in all kinds of situations and spaces.
  3. Audio Description is complex. It’s technical, artistic, expressive, and cultural.
  4. Audio Description is everywhere. There are heaps of resources, examples, and organizations that can support us on our next Audio Description adventure.

May you have vivid Audio Description Adventures in the years ahead--Bon Voyage!


[Silhouette of a sailboat on a placid lake sailing into a deep golden sunset. Wispy pink clouds float close above the boat and close to the water as the adventurers sail off to the next Audio Description Adventure!]

Special thanks to Cheryl Green for her review and feedback on this Tip. 

Links from today’s Tip (in order of appearance)