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The growth of audio description, on screen and stage

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Audio description is becoming more common in the arts and media, but advocates say more trained describers are needed to keep up with demand.

Audio description is when somebody provides a narrated description of what’s happening on a screen, stage, or at an event during natural pauses in the audio, integrating with the score and dialogue, to allow the more than 180,000 Kiwis who are blind, vision impaired or who have low vision to keep up with the story.

This month Discovery joined TVNZ in offering audio description for some of its programming on Three, with spokesperson Juliet Peterson saying it was “incredibly important to serve all New Zealand audiences”. Three would look to introduce live captioning in the near future, Peterson said. About 75% of content on Three is already captioned by Able NZ.

Able, the country’s leading independent provider of media access services including captioning, subtitling and translation subtitling, is the provider of audio description on television in Aotearoa. It aims to audio describe a range of programs across drama, comedy and documentary.

READ MORE:
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* About 1.7 million Kiwis find it hard to take part in the arts
* Accessibility in the Arts: The NZ culture scene is experiencing an awakening

Tamara Gussy is an audio describer with Able NZ.

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Tamara Gussy is an audio describer with Able NZ.

The growth of audio description comes as the Accessibility for New Zealanders bill makes its way through Parliament – ​​though as it stands the bill does not strongly mandate audio description, captioning or other services that help make arts and media accessible – something disability advocates hope will change through the select committee process.

NZ On Air research shows that while 38% of New Zealanders watched captioned television in 2021, 7% watched audio-described television – a figure that was up from just 2% in 2014. And more broadly, people were engaging with accessible media more than ever before: 85% of Facebook video content is now viewed without sound, and four out of five young Kiwis watch videos with subtitles or captions all the time.

Netflix was providing more audio description on its programmes, mandating producers to use it when creating shows, but YouTube doesn’t yet have the capability to host audio description and television providers like Sky also don’t offer it.

Able NZ chief executive Dan Buckingham said it had about 10 audio describers who worked to describe television programs. It had delivered an audio description service since 2011, Buckingham said, and it was a particularly exciting time for the future of audio description with the TVNZ-RNZ merger on the horizon.

Dan Buckingham is chief executive of Able and says awareness of audio description is increasing each year.

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Dan Buckingham is chief executive of Able and says awareness of audio description is increasing each year.

Awareness of and engagement with audio description was increasing in Aotearoa, Buckingham said. It could enhance everybody’s experience with media, Buckingham said, and had benefits for those who wanted to continue listening to a program from another room.

Tamara Gussy has worked as an audio describer for Able for about 1½ years, coming from a performing arts background. Gussy said having a trained voice and understanding what’s important in a scene and what needs to get across were keys to successful audio description.

Audio description with television is pre-recorded and unique to the describer who creates it – one describer may draw out details that another chooses to ignore. “There’s no right or wrong description,” Gussy said. And there’s variation in how much audio description programs allow: some dialogue-heavy shows don’t give much creative freedom.

Gussy said the Able team was limited by in how much content it could describe due to its staff numbers.

More Kiwis access audio description services each year – including via television programming and in the wider arts world.  Pictured, Able NZ audio describer Virginia Philp.

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More Kiwis access audio description services each year – including via television programming and in the wider arts world. Pictured, Able NZ audio describer Virginia Philp.

Nicola Owen helped co-found Audio Described Aotearoa after being trained in the audio description a decade ago and now provides live audio description for opera, ballet, theatre, festival events, art exhibitions, tours and conferences. She also provides a pre-recorded audio description service and helps train others.

“What was previously totally inaccessible to blind people now comes alive,” Owen said.

A generation of young blind people were growing up believing live performance was for them, Owen said. “It’s opened up this whole new vision… [they’re] expecting it now,” she said. “Blind people are demanding to be able to have access to these things.”

Audio description was starting to creep into areas beyond entertainment including sport, Owen said – she planned to audio describe the FIFA Women’s World Cup next year.

Nicola Owen, co-founder of Audio Described Aotearoa, says audio description is now moving into areas beyond entertainment.

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Nicola Owen, co-founder of Audio Described Aotearoa, says audio description is now moving into areas beyond entertainment.

Owen said audio description helped break the social isolation many blind and low vision Kiwis faced. But challenges remained with the amount of audio describers, with particularly low numbers of Māori and Pasifika describers. Some people were also not able to access audio description when wearing a hearing aid that may interfere with an audio description earpiece.

Arts Access Aotearoa executive director Richard Benge said it advocated for audio description wherever possible and wanted to see it rolled out further.

Thomas Bryan is blind and on the board of Able NZ and said audio description would not exist without the advocacy of Blind Citizens NZ. “Without audio description, I’d be none the wiser what is going on,” Bryan said. “It makes a huge, huge difference. … It’s painting the picture of what’s happening in various scenes, who’s doing what, facial expressions.”

Bryan said having that extra information “fills in so many gaps”, and he would otherwise have to ask somebody else to explain, which takes away from the enjoyment of engaging with art and media.

Thomas Bryan says audio description fills in so many gaps that he would otherwise have to ask about.

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Thomas Bryan says audio description fills in so many gaps that he would otherwise have to ask about.

Some providers like TVNZ do not have on-demand audio description services, which means having to watch live programming. There was also patchy audio description offerings in cinemas, despite some existing apps that audio describe films.

And some arts organizers acted as if they were offering a single audio description show at their own generosity, and that it was “not a right” for people to access audio description, Bryan said, adding that he believed audio description should be mandated across all arts and media.

“I can’t say enough what a difference it makes.”

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