Audio Description The Visual Made Verbal with Joel Snyder

Audio Description: The Visual Made Verbal

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Access to the Arts and Media For People Who Are Blind

Course Description:

Audio Description makes the visual images of theater, media and visual art accessible for people who are blind or have low vision—the visual is made verbal. Using words that are succinct, vivid, and imaginative, describers convey the visual image that is not fully accessible to a segment of the population (over 30 million Americans are blind or have trouble seeing even with correction-American Foundation for the Blind, 2019) and not fully realized by the rest of us—people who see but who may not observe. Using the pauses between pieces of dialogue or critical sound elements, describers insert narrative that translates the visual image into a sense form that is accessible to millions of individuals who otherwise would lack full access to the arts.

In training describers, focus is on four fundamentals:

1) OBSERVATION We learn to see the world anew. In his book, “Seen Unseen: A Guide to Active Seeing,” the photographer, John Schaefer, coins the phrase “visual literacy.” Schaefer refers to the need to “increase your level of awareness and become an active “see-er”. The best describers will truly notice all the visual elements that make up an event.

2) EDITING-SELECTING KEY VISUAL ELEMENTS Audio describers must then edit or cull from what they see, selecting what is most valid, what is most important, what is most critical to an understanding and appreciation of an event. Often, only a few precious seconds are available to convey those images.

3) LANGUAGE We transfer it all to words—objective, vivid, imaginatively drawn words, phrases, and metaphors. For instance, how many different words can you use to describe someone moving along a sidewalk? Why say “walk” why you can more vividly describe the action with “sashay,” “stroll,” “skip,” “stumble,” or “saunter”?

4) VOCAL SKILLS Finally, in addition to building a verbal capability, the describer (or whoever will voice the descriptions) develops the vocal instrument through work with speech and oral interpretation fundamentals.

Course Goals: This course aims to train students as audio describers with potential for the development and delivery of description scripts for professional, student, or community arts presentations.

By the end of this course students can expect to know/experience:

  • who are “the blind”?
  • the history of Audio Description
  • Active Seeing  Visual Literacy
  • the art of “editing” what you see
  • using language to conjure images
  • using Audio Description in live theater productions, in video/film, with visual art exhibits, and on the web

Instructor and Background:

Joel Snyder, PhD
President, Audio Description Associates, LLC
Founder/Senior Consultant, Audio Description Project, American Council of the Blind
301 920-0218 – [email protected] –


Audio Description (AD) was developed as an access technique in the 1960s and 1970s and the world’s first ongoing service for live theater began in the Washington, DC area at Arena Stage in 1981–I was a part of that service. AD is now available in the performing arts and in museums, and on television and film world-wide (I wrote and voiced several of the first described television broadcast for PBS in 1985); it is studied academically on the undergraduate and graduate levels throughout Europe principally as a part of translation programs: it is considered a form of “audio-visual translation” akin to subtitling.

As you will note from my bio listed below, I have conducted workshops for many of these programs throughout the world—and have produced description, spoken on description, or trained describers in over 40 states and in 63 countries. My PhD is from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona with a focus on audio description. My dissertation was developed into the principal text on the training of audio describers, published in 2014 by the American Council of the Blind: The Visual Made Verbal-A Comprehensive Training Manual and Guide to the History and Applications of Audio Description. The book is available in Braille and as an audio book from the Library of Congress and in screen-readable formats; in print the book is available in English, Portuguese, Polish, Russian, and Spanish; editions in Italian and Chinese are under development.

The Offer: I am offering a 14-session course/seminar in arts access/audio description spanning the disciplines of performing arts, media, visual art, English and arts management.

Audio description is my area of expertise but after more than 40 years of working as an accessibility advocate, I have strong ties with leaders in all areas of structural and communicative access, including sign and captioning as well as techniques for including people who have particular mobility, emotional and/or cognitive needs–I would draw on these connections to bring in guest lecturers.

My syllabus involves approximately 30% lecture, 30% interactive media study, and 40% practicum. It is important to note that there are and will be an increasing number of employment opportunities for audio describers. A partial list of organizations who hire audio describers includes:

– Audio Description Associates, LLC
– WGBH Media Access Center
– CaptionMax
– Narrative Television Network
– Theater Development Fund
– Sound Associates
– Deluxe
– 3 Play Media
– DiCapta Foundation
– Described and Captioned Media Program
– National Captioning Institute
– National Park Service

In July of 2012 legislation took effect that mandates description on television broadcasts. This has resulted in a virtual explosion in the need for trained describers.

Still, it is important to remember that not every student will become an active describer–just as not every acting student becomes a professional actor. But the proposed program will build awareness in this important access technique and enable students to become access coordinators or administrators: every state arts agency in the nation has a staff member who is the “coordinator” (charged with overseeing disability access at grantees).

Finally, as an Equity actor for over three decades and former theater instructor, I can assure you that the skills developed by describers complement the training pursued by beginning actors and voice talents. For instance, “observation” is key to effective audio description and is the first lesson in Richard Boleslavsky’s classic text “The First Six Lessons in Acting”.

At the same time, I believe that any study or practicum must be grounded in a review of theory and the appropriate underpinnings in the literature–an understanding of the arts and disability studies areas.