How Audio Description Improves Accessibility for Visual Media

In this episode, Brett Oppegaard, Ph.D., explains how audio description, the remediation of visual media primarily for the benefit of people who are blind or have low vision, improves accessibility.

Airdate: 18 August 2021

Season 2 Episode 4 | 48 min

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Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:10.640] – Liz Fraley

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to Room 42. I’m Liz Fraley from Single Source Solutions. I’m your moderator. Our interviewer is Janice Summers from TC Camp, and welcome to Dr. Brett Oppegaard who’s today’s guest in Room 42.

[00:00:25.210] – Liz Fraley

Brett teaches digital media and intersections of technical communication, disability studies, mobile technologies, digital inequality, and journalism at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa. He teaches about news literacy, multimedia production, media accessibility, and media entrepreneurship, including within his two primary areas of scholarly expertise, locative media or place-connected media, and audio description, which is the remediation of visual media into audio, audible media, for people who are blind or have low vision.

[00:00:56.990] – Liz Fraley

He worked for more than a decade as a staff newspaper writer, including as an arts critic in the Portland, Oregon, area. And he’s also worked with a variety of publications since then, primarily as a freelance writer.

[00:01:08.460] – Liz Fraley

He’s been the undergraduate chair of UH’s journalism program since the fall of 2019, and his research has been supported by the National Park Service, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a National Endowment for the Arts and Google and others.

[00:01:22.610] – Liz Fraley

Today, Brett here to help us start answering the question, how does audio description improve accessibility? Welcome.

[00:01:28.750] – Brett Oppegaard

Thank you very much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

[00:01:31.740] – Janice Summers

We are thrilled to have you here. And there is so much to unpack in your topic. It’s very interesting and fascinating, and there’s a lot of things that you bring out in some of your articles, but perhaps, I always like to start with an origin story. How did you get involved with this project?

[00:01:52.920] – Brett Oppegaard

Yeah. Well, as Liz said, I studied locative media, and I was doing a bunch of research projects with the National Park Service on locative media. And one day they called me up and said, we have this problem with accessibility, we’d like you to take a look at it.

[00:02:11.540] – Brett Oppegaard

And they showed me a box of brochures, about 400 brochures. They were all pieces of paper folded up with pictures and texts and maps on it. And said, how do we make those accessible for people who are blind or visually impaired? What can we do about that?

[00:02:28.400] – Janice Summers

So what are the thoughts that went through your mind when you.. so because that —  awesome. What was your thought when you were posed with that problem? Because that is a pretty big problem.

[00:02:43.460] – Brett Oppegaard

Yeah, my first thought was, how am I going to do this? Because I made the assumption that there were a lot of support systems in place already for it. I assume that there was a lot of empirical research on this. I assume there are a lot of online support systems, third party software. I assumed all that existed.

[00:03:10.300] – Janice Summers

Yeah, you would think, right?

[00:03:11.970] – Brett Oppegaard

I would think so.

[00:03:12.310] – Janice Summers

There’s nothing new, right? You would think that there’d be some research already done.

[00:03:17.660] – Brett Oppegaard

And what I found was pretty much the opposite. Most of the work was done by practitioners who use audio recording performance as the way to audio describe, and that’s just not affordable or practical for most situations.

[00:03:36.370] – Brett Oppegaard

And that led us to undertake what was the first major obstacle, is how do we make audio descriptions? So we built open source, open access web tools for that.

[00:03:50.100] – Brett Oppegaard

And then another part of it like, now we can make it. How are we going to make it well? And we started to investigate the various best practices around the world and found that a lot of times they were really thin or abstract or generalized.

[00:04:08.650] – Brett Oppegaard

And so we started to say, okay, why can’t we begin to do some research on this and really dig into it? It has taken quite a while to get the open source, open access tools developed. Those are in great state now on the website, which I’ll share here.

[00:04:27.610] – Brett Oppegaard

And we also use that website as a place for these resources to exist. So people don’t have to go through that hundreds and hundreds of hours of research I did, just to find where are the best practices and what’s been written about this before? And it just all that stuff. It just took me and my research assistant an incredible amount of time to do.

[00:04:51.640] – Brett Oppegaard

So basically, when we find something interesting that we think is going to be valuable for lots of people, we’ll put it on the website, a link to it or a citation or something like that. And then we also put our research on there when we publish it.

[00:05:08.150] – Brett Oppegaard

So as we develop new pieces, we put those on there so people can find them and read them without having access issues through the various services.

[00:05:19.190] – Janice Summers

Yeah, which is quite handy to be able to get to the articles without having to get through… Because a lot of the places you have to be subscribers to get to. Now you’re faced with the challenge of creating an audio map, where do you begin? Because there’s so much that goes into a map.

[00:05:42.270] – Brett Oppegaard

I can start with the are the hardest one to something easy first. You have a ball on the table or something.

[00:05:53.820] – Brett Oppegaard

OK A map. How do we —

[00:05:54.530] – Janice Summers

Start with an easy one.

[00:05:56.680] – Brett Oppegaard

No, No. Let’s start with maps, I’m just kidding. So every park site has a brochure just about. And then every brochure has a big map, usually because national parks are sometimes as large as states. Like if you think of Yellowstone-

[00:06:13.980] – Janice Summers

Or even County Parks have the same thing. They all have a map. They are just… I visited a County Park, last week. They give you a map. They say they want you to be oriented and where things are. Yeah.

[00:06:27.830] – Brett Oppegaard

So the map has a variety of functions. And one thing we did initially in our research was to determine what’s the purpose of a map in this context. Like when somebody gets a brochure and they look at the map, how are they going to use it?

[00:06:43.120] – Brett Oppegaard

And we found that there’s, of course, the navigation part, which you mentioned, like how to get around. But there’s also a cognitive mapping, understanding the place and its boundaries and what’s in it and that sort of thing. And then there’s cultural historical understanding that comes from a map.

[00:07:03.700] – Brett Oppegaard

Oftentimes maps show places that don’t exist anymore, so you can overlay that on the present day. And then there’s also a natural understanding where you might understand the terrain, like here’s a mountain here, there’s a river there. So there’s different purposes for a map-

[00:07:26.940] – Janice Summers

Points of interest, right?

[00:07:26.940] – Brett Oppegaard

They have points of interest. Yeah, absolutely.

[00:07:29.500] – Janice Summers

There’s particular redwood that means something. It has a name, right?

[00:07:33.520] – Brett Oppegaard

Yes, all the highlights of an area. But there’s also a whole bunch of other stuff on the maps, like where are the bathroom’s at? What are the trails? Whether are these little side roads that you can go on to get here and there?

[00:07:47.980] – Brett Oppegaard

The maps usually… I mean, number one, there are a lot of different types of maps. There are maps that are illustrations, there are maps that are the flat cartographer maps that you’re probably thinking of right now, and there are a whole bunch of in betweens, like part illustration, part cartography.

[00:08:09.770] – Brett Oppegaard

And in these maps and their variety often are designed because people have certain purposes that they want to use them for. So our first step in our research was to figure out, okay, how do people use maps in national parks?

[00:08:27.660] – Brett Oppegaard

And then we categorize those. And then we decided, okay, so when people audio describe the maps, then they should convey that purpose to the listener.

[00:08:39.500] – Brett Oppegaard

And so, for example, this is mainly a cognitive mapping. You’re not going to necessarily get in your car and drive around. A city that used to have a historical town underneath it or something. There’s no way to really drive around it, but you’re just imagining what it used to be like.

[00:09:02.680] – Brett Oppegaard

The audio description should reflect that. It shouldn’t have some flat template that every map goes through. So there’s some interpretation that takes place. And then the goal is to communicate that purpose to the listener.

[00:09:17.560] – Brett Oppegaard

And the other goal that we set out at when we were creating maps is if the person making the map thought it was important to be on the map, then the person listening to the map should get a chance to listen to it.

[00:09:34.320] – Brett Oppegaard

So I mean, every part of the map needs to be described. You can’t just say, here’s a map of Yellowstone Park. It’s about the size of the state of Delaware. It has lots of roads and mountains and things on it. That doesn’t really help a person like the way a person seeing the map would use it.

[00:09:56.070] – Brett Oppegaard

So in the case of a large map, we have a variety of techniques for it. But primarily we recommend an overview. Like if you glance at a map, what would you take from it? And that is usually about a paragraph long.

[00:10:09.600] – Brett Oppegaard

And then to break that map into uses like, if you’re going to Old Faithful on Yellowstone, what’s the map in that area going to tell you? And then describe that part. And then if you’re going to Yellowstone Falls, there’s another section with all that part of the map.

[00:10:30.910] – Brett Oppegaard

And so there’s a holistic part at the beginning that lets the listener know this is what this map is all about. This is the purpose it serves. And then we try to break it down into usable sections.

[00:10:43.660] – Brett Oppegaard

Those can overlap. They’re not hard boundaries. Sometimes you can describe certain parts in multiple sections. You can move things around on our tool, duplicate items, whatever you need to do. But the main point of it is you want to give a person who’s blind or has low vision the same agency to explore the park, that person who can see the map does.

[00:11:12.010] – Brett Oppegaard

And what I’ve learned from people using our describe maps is that they get to be involved in deciding how the trip is going to play out. So it’s not just, hey, we’re going to take you to the park, and you’re going to sit in the back of the car and drive around. Not really. You’re going to go wherever we want to go and you’re not going to have any idea where we’re going.

[00:11:39.210] – Brett Oppegaard

It’s more on the lines of person who is blind or low vision says, listen to the map. I’d really like to go to Yellowstone Falls and hear that big waterfall. And so they can be a part of that planning discussion, and then that gives people more agency to participate in the park in new ways. And that’s probably some of the most exciting feedback I’ve received about it. It’s a discussion that get struck from the descriptions.

[00:12:10.010] – Janice Summers

So when you describe things, to what depth and level? I mean, do you describe road conditions? This is a horse trail. This is a person only trail, narrow and rugged. What depth do you go into describing? Because maps have sickness of line, they have elevation markers. Do you go into that level when you’re describing?

[00:12:36.390] – Brett Oppegaard

Yeah, the audio description philosophy is basically making an equivalent experience. So for the thickness of line, you can describe that. What we recommend, for example, is describing the map key.

[00:12:54.730] – Brett Oppegaard

And say, for example, there’s horse trails on the map key, then you can make a section in the description about where are all the horse trails. So if you want to go on a horse ride, you can do that.

[00:13:07.990] – Brett Oppegaard

And we just try to make the equivalent experience. We don’t try to do more. We just try to make it equivalent. And that’s enough. And that’s really what audio description is designed to do. It’s like captioning for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. It’s intended to give the equivalent experience of hearing the television program or whatever.

[00:13:31.530] – Brett Oppegaard

And audio description is designed to give the equivalent experience of seeing the visual media. So whatever information is in the visual media, that’s what we try to describe.

[00:13:44.500] – Brett Oppegaard

And with maps, it can get quite complicated, but there’s also a big payoff for that. And I think they also make the maps more usable for everybody to have such description, because just like captioning is valuable and lots of context for people, even people who are not deaf or hard of hearing, audio description is also valuable for people who are print dyslexic or to listen to things or need their hands free or they’re working on something. There’s just a whole bunch of context where description can be really helpful.

[00:14:23.480] – Brett Oppegaard

And so part of this is also about just making better media in general. If you make your media and it’s accessible, it’s also better media for everyone. And so that’s also in the mix there.

[00:14:37.040] – Janice Summers

That’s very true. And when you think about it in technical and professional communications, I don’t know… Okay, I don’t know everybody, but I don’t know of anyone who has talked about audio until you. I mean, you’re the first person I’m talking to that talks about audio as part of the technical and professional communication.

[00:15:03.610] – Brett Oppegaard

There are scholars out there studying this. There are a lot of great folks. But in this field of technical communication, there are very few.

[00:15:14.480] – Brett Oppegaard

Primarily the cluster of scholars is in the translation studies field, and they’re in Europe and Western Europe. There’s a big cluster of them working on this, but they’re working at it from a translation angle, where you translate language or translate media.

[00:15:33.870] – Brett Oppegaard

So there are some people in that, but definitely room for more people. So if this is something that interests you as a scholar, interests anybody that hears it and hears this program, then just send me an email or whatever, I get you connected to the community. And we welcome many more people working on this.

[00:15:55.030] – Janice Summers

Yeah, because I mean-

[00:15:56.040] – Liz Fraley

That’s fine.

[00:15:57.650] – Janice Summers

Go ahead.

[00:15:59.690] – Liz Fraley

Yes. I’m still back on the equivalent experience in the map, and it was really the horse trails that did it for me. In a lot of ways, that seems like you’re doing better overall design and architecture of whatever it is that you’re delivering.

[00:16:17.140] – Liz Fraley

We’re putting in horse trails. So let’s have a section about horse trails. And so that if people are interested in that, they can go and look and see more about them or whatever. It gives access to the heart of the map. And it seems that the lessons you’re learning overall have implications for organization and architecture and depth.

[00:16:43.610] – Brett Oppegaard

Yeah. I think it’s all part of the technical communication puzzle and how do you say it and what do you say. So part of it is the medium, too, where we… When we went back to the earlier question about when we started, there was also no way to deliver this audio description to people easily. And so we created free mobile apps to do that on Android and iOS smartphones.

[00:17:15.580] – Brett Oppegaard

And what we found? Well, to begin with, actually, we studied how do people listen to audio description. And when we started this project in 2014, there was still a little bit of a mixture of technologies being used. Some people were using DAISY readers and things like that.

[00:17:33.850] – Brett Oppegaard

And as we worked on the project, there was this, as with society in general, a mass migration to smartphones and everybody in the community, people who are blind or low vision has a smartphone now. So we determined that that was the best way to get audio description to people.

[00:17:56.680] – Brett Oppegaard

So basically, when people make audio description on our system, they can quickly export that as HTML and put it on their website. Our system will create an instant link they can send to people. You can put it on to mobile apps.

[00:18:15.080] – Brett Oppegaard

So there’s just lots of ways to get it to people in place when they need it, as opposed to even if you think about a brochure as an artifact of communication, you have to go to the visitor center, you have to find the rack, you have to get the brochure, you have to carry it around. You may drop it somewhere, and then you find out I need it later. But with a smartphone, you’re not going to have any of those problems, you’re going to always have that in your pocket.

[00:18:40.920] – Brett Oppegaard

You’re going to be pretty certain not to lose it.

[00:18:43.780] – Janice Summers

And nobody drops their smartphone.

[00:18:45.410] – Brett Oppegaard

Yeah, they’re not going to drop it. And our system, another thing we learned early on, and the research was that in some parts of the parks, there was not a good cell service. So what we do with our system is as soon as somebody opens a file, like the assembly file or whatever, it’ll download the content to their phone so they don’t need the connection after that.

[00:19:09.540] – Brett Oppegaard

So if they go to the visitor center and there’s a hotspot, they can download the information, and then they can go all around the park and have that on their phone. And so there’s that.

[00:19:20.700] – Brett Oppegaard

So this has a lot of angles, I guess, that require innovation and adaptation. And dissemination was part of it.

[00:19:34.740] – Janice Summers

Interesting. So now, how would this apply to not the parks and recreation centers? How would you take this into commercial entity?

[00:19:49.140] – Brett Oppegaard

Well, any kind of visual media that you want to describe, you can do it on our system, and lots of people have used it for for different things. But basically, if you imagine what are the building blocks of description, you’re usually describing people in some activity that is usually what’s shown or an object, a cultural artifact of some type, a map, a collage. They’re the same thing no matter what context it’s in.

[00:20:24.020] – Brett Oppegaard

Like, describing myself right now, I would describe my background. And for the people out there listening that are blind or low vision, I’m in a rectangular Zoom box with a Hawaii scene behind me, a palm tree and beach and some crashing waves.

[00:20:44.980] – Brett Oppegaard

And shown from the shoulders up, basically, I have a dark blue colored shirt on. I’m a middle aged white male with brown hair, pinkish tan skin, it appears in this minute video and clear glasses, clear frame glasses and headphones.

[00:21:09.100] – Brett Oppegaard

So you give a certain sense of even that, in 30 seconds, I just made that part of this more accessible to somebody who’s listening.

[00:21:17.720] – Janice Summers

Right. So when you’re doing infographics, you could do that?

[00:21:23.980] – Brett Oppegaard

Any visual media. Doesn’t matter if it’s moving-

[00:21:30.800] – Liz Fraley

For special charts and anything that has conclusions or pieces on it, you want… One of the best practices you have for creating the writing of the audio description so that you provide a better experience. Do you find anything in particular that are good tips?

[00:21:51.060] – Brett Oppegaard

Well, I’ve been starting to expand the audio description world into cognitive science and cognitive processing and memory and things like that. So what we found in audio description, because if you imagine you’re reading a text and you can see it, you can pause whenever you want and you can go back. And it’s pretty easy to retrace your steps if you get lost.

[00:22:18.050] – Brett Oppegaard

But when audio is playing, it is linear and it just keeps going like a train. And so one of the things we found in audio description is to provide a lot of navigation elements to it.

[00:22:33.770] – Brett Oppegaard

For example, the first thing I always describe when I’m describing something as what is it that I’m describing, for example, a horizontal photograph, colored photograph or something like that. So you start right there and then somebody can visualize, okay, the next piece of information I’m going to get, it fits within that frame of what a photograph is.

[00:22:57.420] – Brett Oppegaard

And then my recommendation is to work… Imagine you’re working in what’s called “working memory”, which is different than sensory memory or long term memory. In working memory, people can roughly remember 4-8 chunks of information at a time before it starts filtering out at the back end.

[00:23:20.010] – Brett Oppegaard

And so as you’re giving people information, think like a paragraph or so, and then pause and see where the person is at. So in our system, we create what we call components. And in those components, you have the description of the artifact and then what we’re calling the synopsis.

[00:23:44.960] – Brett Oppegaard

And synopsis in Greek mean seen together. So we like the idea that you’re seeing something together and this is the big overview, and it’s about 4-8 chunks of information.

[00:23:56.770] – Brett Oppegaard

And then the next section of the description we call in-depth description. And that’s where we take the synopsis and we roll it out into all its details.

[00:24:08.390] – Brett Oppegaard

So if you’re imagining a map or something, you might start saying, here are the 10 highlighted areas we’re going to describe in more depth in this map. The first one is Old Faithful, and then that section will be described.

[00:24:24.540] – Brett Oppegaard

And with our tools, it allows people with screen readers to jump around so they’re not stuck in any place. That’s also an innovation I think we’ve made that’s been really well received.

[00:24:35.950] – Brett Oppegaard

Typically, audio description was delivered in ways that there were very few breaks in it. One of the first piece-

[00:24:45.900] – Janice Summers

First trajectory like you had to go–. 

[00:24:47.700] – Liz Fraley


[00:24:48.210] – Brett Oppegaard

Yeah, First, the directory. I mean, one of the first pieces I listened to when I was learning about this field, it was an audio recording that the narrator got on and said, this audio description is going to be an hour and 45 minutes. I’d like you to find a nice comfortable seat and sit down and let’s get started.

[00:25:11.170] – Brett Oppegaard

And so I was like, that was one audio file? And you’re thinking, I just want to know where the bathroom is. It’s like first hour or second hour? So what we tried to do is break it into these really small, navigable chunks.

[00:25:33.190] – Brett Oppegaard

And then in our system, the screen reader creates a table of content, and the user of it can go up or down the table of contents and find what they want and select it. And then it jumps to the description, and they can jump back to the table of contents.

[00:25:49.660] – Janice Summers

And it makes it easier for them to repeat another area that they want to repeat, easier to navigate back to that and repeat it, right?

[00:25:59.180] – Janice Summers

Right. So I would say the key tip I would have for people is to break things down into the modular atomized chunks of information and then try to make those maybe clustered together in similar discussions about the place.

[00:26:19.770] – Janice Summers

In writing and technical professional communication, we talk in terms of architecture, and we talk about logical chunks, right? In a particular type of architecture where you describe one thing and you describe it really well, then you go on to the next thing and describe it really well.

[00:26:38.030] – Janice Summers

These can be put together. They’re isolated, but they come together and they stand on their own. So you’re describing that same modularity in audio, which is interesting. I just wanted people to pick up on that. So keep going.

[00:26:53.730] – Liz Fraley

And I’m seeing graph theory. That’s my visual of those, like the picture I have in my head, anyway. We’re talking audio, and I have a picture in my head.

[00:27:05.470] – Janice Summers

And I’m seeing written architecture structure. 

[00:27:10.610] – Brett Oppegaard

There are really a lot of ways to come into audio description. There’s production, research that needs to be done. There’s reception, research that needs to be done. There’s organization, there’s best practices, there’s performative, how’s the voice sound? There’s just a whole bunch.

[00:27:30.440] – Brett Oppegaard

Like I said, it’s a field that’s really wide open for lots of folks to come in and make a mark. So when I look out at it is overwhelming the amount of research that needs to be done. I certainly can’t do it all, or even a large fraction.

[00:27:49.580] – Brett Oppegaard

I would love to have more people working on this, especially in technical communication, because I think it’s perfect for technical communication. Very few TC people have picked up on it.

[00:28:01.790] – Janice Summers

Right. That’s true. Very few of them talk about the audio aspects. But it’s very important, especially… I mean, if you’re trying to inform and instruct someone as technical and professional communicators need to, you want to be inclusive. You need to pay attention to those who are visually impaired, blind or visually impaired.

[00:28:28.960] – Janice Summers

Or like me, it’s easier for me to listen than it is for me to read sometimes. So how do you address that? And how do you meet those needs? Even in technical and professional communications, if you’re trying to inform and educate people, you need to have an audio component, right?

[00:28:48.380] – Liz Fraley

When people are rushing toward making video, then they’re missing that component.

[00:28:54.080] – Janice Summers


[00:28:55.760] – Brett Oppegaard

Yeah, videos can be audio described. If you think of audience, there are roughly 20 million people in the United States alone that are blind or low vison. Why the number? I don’t have on top of my head, but I think it’s around 300 million or something, about the size of the United States.

[00:29:16.830] – Brett Oppegaard

So there are enormous number of people. That’s typically is a situation where folks when they get older, they start to lose their vision. And so we have a lot of people who are senior citizens who become very isolated if you don’t have accessible content, and they feel like they can’t participate in public places or public forums or anything if they’re not accessible to them through audio description.

[00:29:50.790] – Brett Oppegaard

So it’s really like a lost part of our society here in the sense that visual media is definitely privileged and the visual sense is privileged in our society quite dramatically. And so then when you have that privilege, you have to ask who’s getting left out because of that privilege, and there’s people who can’t see or see well.

[00:30:17.410] – Brett Oppegaard

And then they’re on the sidelines when they could definitely contribute, they could definitely be a part of whatever social activity there is, and they want to be. And so they’re being isolated and disenfranchised. It’s sad. It’s causing a lot of health problems for people. It’s causing mental health issues.

[00:30:42.090] – Brett Oppegaard

So I think this is a very easy way to, not easy in the sense of there’s a lot to do, but it’s a simple way to just tilt our perspective a little bit. Let’s bring in the 10 percent of people who can’t see well here, and let’s bring them into the club, too.

[00:31:00.940] – Janice Summers

Right. Well, Liz brings up a good point. A lot of people are rushing to videos and producing instructional videos. It’s still not to the depth of what you’re talking about, like describing things, because even if you’re doing a short video, you’re assuming that they can see it. But if they’re just listening to it, you’re still not describing the background. You’re not describing how to put the blood pressure cuff on. You’re not describing it in a way that somebody who is visually impaired could understand it better in a richer format, right?

[00:31:41.820] – Brett Oppegaard

Yeah. For videos, we recommend that the first thing is to write the script with a blind person in mind. And that usually makes a better script because the narrator is describing what’s being shown in a natural way, like everybody else is seeing it.

[00:32:01.350] – Brett Oppegaard

And then on top of that audio description, there’s two types of audio description for videos. There’s the stuff it in type, like you stuff the audio description in between pauses in the dialogue. That’s what most audio descriptions is.

[00:32:16.660] – Brett Oppegaard

I typically use a different approach where I take the soundtrack to the video, and then I take an audio editor, and I insert as much audio description as I feel is necessary for the video. And that includes each scene change I’ll describe. Or if there’s a repeat, say, there’s an A-roll scene like me in this beach scene here, and it comes back to me five times in the video, I won’t describe that every time, but I’ll just say that I’m shown multiple times and the background is the same.

[00:32:52.160] – Brett Oppegaard

And so that way, people when they’re listening, they can hear about each scene and what it looks like, and then they can hear the scene play out. And then they also get a sense of the holistic context of what is this visual media trying to say that’s unspoken?

[00:33:15.550] – Brett Oppegaard

So that’s what I recommend on the videos is to audio. Just number one, make it in the script that’s so much easier than trying to cram it in. And then number two, when you do the audio description, I certainly recommend creating a track for people who are blind or low vision. And then that way they can hear the whole description, because it’s not really fair.

[00:33:41.710] – Brett Oppegaard

Typically, what happens there’s one or two… Number one, the scenes change about every 3-5 seconds in most videos, sometimes even more frequently, sometimes one every second.

[00:33:52.620] – Brett Oppegaard

And then number two, the dialogue is usually so tightly edited in there that you maybe have one or two seconds of instrumental music or something somewhere where you can put in a little bit of description, but it doesn’t really do the job. So in videos, I recommend that the new background track. And you also set it up in a way that everybody can listen to the same track.

[00:34:21.640] – Brett Oppegaard

The one mistake that people make when they do audio description is they create a piece of audio description that only people who are blind or low vision can listen to. And then a whole separate piece of media for people who are not blind or low vision.

[00:34:37.010] – Brett Oppegaard

And then all that does, in a practical sense, is when, say, you go to a Museum and you’re at a gallery and the person wants to participate with their family or friends, they have to go in a different place and be isolated and separated. And it’s just a bad practical experience for the people that the pragmatics are wrong.

[00:34:59.040] – Brett Oppegaard

So really, what we’re trying to get at is integrating this into everyday media. And social inclusion, I think is an underlying goal of what our whole project is about, bringing people together and having them participate in public together.

[00:35:19.460] – Janice Summers

It’s interesting that you talk about a piece of art or a sculpture and doing the audio description of that and having one single source where those who are visually impaired and those who aren’t listening to the same audio description, because I think that there’s a richness when you have to audio describe a piece of art that may be overlooked by even those that are not visually impaired.

[00:35:44.240] – Janice Summers

There’s some subtleties because you go in and you describe everything  in that. I think there’s some examples on your website that I highly recommend people go and look at and listen to because there’s a richness in that description that others would overlook. So by including… And what was the phrase that you just said? Social inclusion?

[00:36:08.060] – Brett Oppegaard

Yeah, social inclusion because people who are blind or excluded, they’re socially excluded. So we want to turn that around.

[00:36:15.590] – Janice Summers

But we all benefit from it, it’s just… So it’s not excluding them and saying, you have to go listen to this. It’s like, no, it’s all listen to the bits.

[00:36:25.600] – Brett Oppegaard

And not excluding sighted people either. That’s the other part of it. It’s not excluding anybody. It’s just bringing everybody together.

[00:36:33.690] – Janice Summers


[00:36:34.370] – Brett Oppegaard

And that’s just a different mindset. I had one research assistant of mine who’s blind who had told me about going to a museum. She went with her family, and she asked if they had any audio description of the exhibit. And they said, yeah, we do. We have this computer monitor over in the corner here in the back of the gallery, and you just sit there and listen to that and while your family walks around and has fun. So that’s what she had to do. And so that’s the exclusion that happens every day for people who are blind to low vision.

[00:37:08.850] – Janice Summers


[00:37:10.160] – Brett Oppegaard

And we don’t necessarily think about it if we don’t have a friend or family member who is in that situation. But when we talk about the 10-20 million people who are blind or low vision in the United States, they have family members, friends, and all that group is affected by this as well. So it’s a significant usability problem. It’s a significant social justice problem. There’s just a lot in there for people to think about.

[00:37:43.060] – Liz Fraley


[00:37:44.540] – Janice Summers

Absolutely. Now you have a fun little event that happened. I don’t know how, does this happen every year? I know it’s coming up. So do you want to talk about it?

[00:37:56.600] – Brett Oppegaard

We do. Okay.

[00:37:58.650] – Janice Summers

Does it happen once or twice a year?

[00:38:00.530] – Brett Oppegaard

Well, we haven’t been on a real regular schedule. It’s either been once or twice a year. It’s happened every year since 2017. This will be our second one of 2021. It’s called a Descriptathon, and it’s it’s based on a hackathon model. So if you know what a hackathon is, you can guess what a Descriptathon is. We bring together-

[00:38:26.620] – Janice Summers

Let’s assume I know what a hackathon is.

[00:38:28.790] – Brett Oppegaard

Okay. Hackathon is-

[00:38:31.040] – Janice Summers

Talk about what a Descriptathon is? It it’s fine, but go ahead.

[00:38:36.760] – Brett Oppegaard

Okay. Descriptathon, we bring together people from different communities, different stakeholders. And in this case, we primarily are working with national parks. I’ll just as a National Park as an example. Although this Descriptathon, we’re also working with the Kennedy Center and some other places that they’re not necessarily national parks.

[00:38:58.760] – Brett Oppegaard

But anyway, I’ll say, is a National Park and the National Park would like to have their media be more accessible. So they joined one of our Descriptathons and we create a team around that site. So let’s say the Lincoln Memorial or something like that.

[00:39:13.480] – Brett Oppegaard

And a couple of people from that site participate, a couple of staff members. And then we also bring into the team a volunteer who is not paid by the site. And we have that person come in because we want to break down organizational jargon and organizational culture, transcend that.

[00:39:33.830] – Brett Oppegaard

And then also on the team, we bring in a couple of people who are blind or low vision, typically from the American Council of the Blind. But depending on who we’re working with, we try to find associations in that natural or national context.

[00:39:50.300] – Brett Oppegaard

This October, we’re working with National Parks UK. So we’re also working with the Royal National Institute for Blind People. And so basically this team is five people at its smallest. Some of the teams get up to 10 or 12 people, and it includes at least two people who are blind or low vision.

[00:40:12.690] – Brett Oppegaard

And basically in this Descriptathon, we have a lot of game-like exercises that teach people how to do it. And then simultaneously, they’re working on their own public products, like their own visitor center brochure and co-creating that with people directly who are blind or low vision.

[00:40:34.690] – Brett Oppegaard

And at the end, they release that to the public. So at the end, they’ll have a more accessible place. And they also have planted the seeds of accessibility in their organization where people know how to do it, they have the tools to do it, and they can start creating more description about their exhibits or their trails or whatever it is they want to describe.

[00:40:57.440] – Brett Oppegaard

So it’s a lot of fun. We have prizes and contests and things. And we try to make it not like a boring training. We try to make it like fun and exciting training.

[00:41:11.380] – Brett Oppegaard

And so an important part of the Descriptathon, there’s competitions where… In this one coming up, we will have 16 teams. And all 16 teams will describe the same object. Pardon me?

[00:41:26.790] – Janice Summers

Sixteen teams?

[00:41:29.160] – Brett Oppegaard

Sixteen teams.

[00:41:32.090] – Liz Fraley

And they’re doing the same one.

[00:41:36.880] – Brett Oppegaard

For the exercise, they will all do… And this is part of the contest, so they’ll do the same description. For example, in this one, we have Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, I think it’s called. And they have a big collage on their brochure, and that’s one of them that all of them will try to describe. So even if they’re not in Santa Monica, they’ll try.

[00:42:02.440] – Brett Oppegaard

So the National Parks UK, the Parks Canada, this .. whoever.. Kennedy Center. All those people take a shot at it. And when their description is complete, we pair them up in a bracket, like a tournament bracket, like NCAA basketball tournament.

[00:42:19.660] – Brett Oppegaard

We have a Brown versus Board of Education versus Cave and Basin and Parks Canada. And they take those two descriptions and we give them to a group of judges who are blind or low vision. We say we basically do an A/B test and say, which you like better and why. And then there’s say, five judges. And the one with the most votes wins. And they move on in the tournament and get different prices.

[00:42:49.460] – Janice Summers

Oh, my God, this is great.

[00:42:51.810] – Liz Fraley

That sounds great. Well, because you would learn a lot. That seems like a great way to figure it.

[00:42:56.730] – Janice Summers

Because even though it’s not like say, Parks and Recreation in Canada, it’s not their park, but they’re learning how to do their park better.

[00:43:06.550] – Brett Oppegaard

Yeah, they’re practicing how to do a collage. We have we have a contest on fortress, objects, maps, and collages. So they’re practicing, how do I describe people even if it’s not their people?

[00:43:23.710] – Brett Oppegaard

And then when they do their own brochure at the same time and they have that skill that, I’ve done this in the contest. And the contest, even though it’s a friendly competition, a lot of people take it, I know seriously isn’t the right word, but they want to do a good job and they want to win and they want to have a description that stacks up well against a competing team.

[00:43:58.400] – Brett Oppegaard

So it creates this energy that’s hard to replicate in other ways, besides using gamification techniques. That’s we like the gamification part of it. And in the way, it motivates people and energizes people.

[00:44:13.040] – Janice Summers

So do you have spectators at these?

[00:44:17.360] – Brett Oppegaard

Yeah, we do have spectators. I mean, anybody who wants to join can watch. That’s a good idea.

[00:44:25.970] – Liz Fraley

And the next one is October?

[00:44:27.870] – Brett Oppegaard

The next one is October 26th to 28th. We started out just in the United States, and now we’ve included Parks Canada for the last three Descriptathons and National Parks UK in this next Descriptathon. And then we’re expanding into Africa in the next one with National Parks Nigeria. And then a whole bunch of other-

[00:44:56.560] – Janice Summers

I honestly think everyone who’s listening to it, if they’re listening to it before October 26th, they need to put this on their calendar and they need to book, if they’re interested in being better communicators, because this is also a great way for people who are curious about the audio description in how they may apply it in their technical and professional communication and their commercial company, this is a great way for them to listen in and observe.

[00:45:28.670] – Brett Oppegaard

So they can participate as well.

[00:45:30.930] – Janice Summers

Well, they can participate as spectator. And they lay odds in Vegas at the game, who’s going to win? But I think it’s a good way too for people who approach this and just get a glimpse, because everybody is in technical and professional communications, they’re all competitive in the way that they all want to be better communicators because that’s what it’s about. So then I’m going to book and mark it on my calendar.

[00:45:59.400] – Brett Oppegaard

Oh, good. Well, great. Yeah, we’re always looking for volunteers to join teams so you can participate. We have semi regularly. We have professional audio describers who just join the teams and volunteer their time to practice. We have scholars. We have students. We have all sorts of people who just like to do it.

[00:46:21.890] – Brett Oppegaard

So if you’re interested, just send me an email. I’m sure there’ll be linked on this somehow and I’d be happy to include you in the next Descriptathon.

[00:46:35.890] – Janice Summers

And I want to make sure that we will help promote that for you too through the TC Camp. However, we can help you to promote that because I think it’s fantastic.

[00:46:46.550] – Brett Oppegaard

That’d be wonderful.

[00:46:47.750] – Janice Summers

Very timely and very important because we’re all talking about the importance of inclusion. So this is a key key aspect. It’s hard to believe, but our time is up.

[00:46:57.800] – Liz Fraley

It is.

[00:46:59.020] – Janice Summers

It has been such a delight talking with you. And please, everybody, go look at the website, which the link is also included. There’s so much information out there for everyone to tap into and some really interesting mind benders to help you think of things in a different perspective. And hopefully everyone will be inspired by it. I know I am.

[00:47:21.010] – Liz Fraley


[00:47:21.840] – Janice Summers


[00:47:23.380] – Brett Oppegaard

Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

[00:47:25.220] – Liz Fraley

Thank you.

[00:47:25.220] – Brett Oppegaard

Yeah, it was a lot of fun talking and I appreciate your questions. Every time I have a conversation about audio description, I always tightens and sharpen my ideas about it. So I appreciate your thoughtful questions.

[00:47:38.720] – Janice Summers

Thank you.

[00:47:40.050] – Liz Fraley

Thank you for being here.

[00:47:41.820] – Brett Oppegaard


[00:47:42.740] – Janice Summers

Bye, everybody.

[00:47:43.460] – Liz Fraley

All right, bye, everyone.

[00:47:45.400] – Brett Oppegaard


In this episode

Brett Oppegaard, Ph.D., University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, researches digital media at intersections of technical communication, disability studies, mobile technologies, digital inequalities, and journalism. He teaches about news literacy, multimedia production, media accessibility, and media entrepreneurship, including within his two primary areas of scholarly expertise: Locative Media, or place-connected media, and Audio Description, which is the remediation of visual media into audible media for people who are blind or have low-vision. He worked for more than a decade as a staff newspaper writer, including as an arts critic, in the Portland, OR, area. He also has worked with a variety of publications since then, primarily as a freelance writer. He has been the Undergraduate Chair of UH’s Journalism Program since Fall 2019. His research has been supported by the U.S. National Park Service, the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities, the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, and Google, among others.

Audio Description is the remediation of visual media, such as photographs, into audible media, primarily for the benefit of people who are blind or have low vision. Research about this topic is complex and interdisciplinary, opening many fertile paths of inquiry, from multiple perspectives. Those include research related to compositional strategies, description genres, mediums, media technologies, reception studies, social inclusion, health benefits, etc.

Dr. Brett Oppegaard has been studying Audio Description for the past seven years, and his award-winning UniDescription Project,, has become an international hub for interest in this topic. As a part of this research, Dr. Oppegaard hosts Descriptathons, which are hackathon-like events, bringing people together to learn about Audio Description basics, practice Audio Description, create audio-described public products, such as audio-described brochures, and simultaneously creating research data about Audio Description processes and products that can be analyzed and reported upon.


The UniDescription Project:



UH Faculty Page:


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