Making Videos Accessible with Audio Descriptions

June 15, 2022
News & UpdatesGianna Manchester

Which would you choose to do?

Watch a video without sound, or listen to the video without watching?

Personally, I would be more inclined to watch the video without sound. Videos most often include closed captions, allowing viewers to access the audio using their vision, plus, so much information is gleaned from the visuals of a video. Whether you observe the scenery in a travel show or discern information presented in a graph on the news, there is so much information that goes unspoken and is thus inaccessible to individuals who cannot use their vision, such as those who are blind or visually impaired. 

This is a lesson I learned while helping create videos to accompany our grant proposals. These videos serve to supplement the writing of the proposal to show and further explain the project. Considering the proposals present tools to make STEM diagrams more accessible to blind and visually impaired students, it is important that we make all information about the tools accessible as well.

How do you make it so the visual information can be portrayed by listening to the video alone? Similar to how videos should include closed captions and images should contain alt text, or descriptions of the images, videos should also contain audio descriptions. Audio descriptions verbally describe what is being depicted in the video alongside the main audio component.

When figuring out how best to incorporate audio descriptions, and what information to include, I turned to our consultant, Mona Minkara, who is a blind scientist and professor at Northeastern University. She introduced me to her YouTube channel and series titled “Planes, Trains, and Canes” which depicts her travels around the world. To ensure her experiences and stories can be accessed equally by all, her videos seamlessly include audio descriptions. The narrator verbalizes any text that appears on the screen and adds brief bits of additional information that may not be perceived by just the audio but is still important for understanding the story. For example, audio descriptions indicate where Mona is such as “in car” or “airport check in” while also explaining pertinent scenery such as “a lion, lioness, and three cubs sleep in the shade under a tree” while on a safari tour. 

The key to audio descriptions is to keep them brief but informative by considering what information is important for the viewer to know. If someone is talking to the camera, a full description of their physical features and outfit is not necessary in most scenarios. Rather, if something they are doing while they are talking or if the environment around them is pertinent, that should be verbalized with audio descriptions.

Watching Mona’s YouTube videos gave me a better sense of how audio descriptions can be included in a video and even made me realize that I enjoyed the audio descriptions. Even though I am able to see the video, I appreciated the extra verbalization of important details. We received similar reactions from sighted viewers of the video we released with audio descriptions (watch a sneak peek), once again confirming that when you make something accessible, you really make it better for everyone. 

Co- Author