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Accessible PracticesBest PracticesAudio Description
Symbol for live audio description What Audio Description Is and Who Uses It

Audio description, intended for persons who are blind or have visual impairments, is the addition of narration that conveys the settings, costumes, body language, and sight gags in a visual presentation or performance. Concise, objective descriptions inserted between portions of dialogue or song can help listeners to understand important visual elements. Audio description is meant to complement a performance, not interfere with it.

Museums use audio description in planetariums, large-format theaters, docent-led or recorded exhibition tours, films, videos, arts performances, and theatrical productions.

In a 1998 study, the American Foundation for the Blind found that the majority of people with visual impairments who had used audio description said they found it very helpful and preferred using materials that had audio description over those that lacked it. Among the benefits of audio description for broadcast television cited most often by blind and visually impaired viewers were the following: gaining knowledge about the visual world; gaining a better understanding of televised materials; feeling independent; experiencing social connection; feeling equality with those who do not have visual impairments; experiencing enjoyment; relief of burden on sighted viewers with whom they watch.


There is often confusion about the difference between an audio tour and an audio described tour. An audio tour guides visitors through a selected portion of exhibit elements, providing label copy and additional information about objects in the galleries. An audio described tour often contains some of the same elements as an audio tour, but also includes vivid, succinct descriptions of objects and orientation and may prompt interaction with exhibit elements.


Excerpt from audio description of Disney's The Lion King, described by Descriptive Video Service, WGBH, Boston:

Excerpt of audio described tour of the Elephant Rotunda at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian.

Equipment Needed

First, you need a trained audio describer. A trained describer starts by becoming familiar with the content of the presentation or performance he/she will describe. For pre-recorded videos, he or she will watch the program and create a script for the audio description. For live performances or presentations, this could involve attending dress rehearsals or reading a script.

Symbol for audio description for TV, video, and film If you are creating a recording to complement a video or film, your audio describer will need access to a recording studio where narration can be recorded and timed to match the video or film.

When audio description is used in a theater, regardless of whether it is live or pre-recorded, you will need a device to transmit the descriptions and multiple receivers for your visitors to wear. For live audio description, you may need a special microphone and a place set aside for the describer to sit. People desiring audio description are provided headsets/earplugs attached to receivers, often about the size of a small pocket calculator. An FM radio or infrared transmitter somewhere in the theater broadcasts the live or taped audio descriptions into the audience.

Creating an audio described exhibition tour will also require using a recording studio. You will need to provide visitors who use a recorded audio described tour with some electronic device to play the recording.

There are several companies that provide transmitters and receivers. Research your options thoroughly before selecting the device that will work best for your situation. Experts recommend getting receivers with multiple channels so that a single receiver can be used for audio description, sound amplification, or translation into other languages. A multichannel system also should allow stage sound and audio description to be heard simultaneously via the headset.

Be sure to advertise the availability of audio description at your museum in brochures and on your web pages. Also, be sure to use appropriate signage and symbols in the museum to alert potential users to where they can request equipment.

Museums cannot charge visitors for use of audio descriptions. If options are available, staff should always ask visitors which device they need or prefer.

Also, staff who dispense equipment for audio description need to be trained in their use and maintenance. Maintenance may include routine equipment checks and recharging batteries.

Where to Get the Equipment You Need

The Audio Description Home Page
This web site explains audio description in greater detail and provides downloadable examples. The site was constructed by Joel Snyder, a describer and narrator for live productions, movies, and audio described tours nationally and internationally. He is the president of Audio Description Associates, an active trainer of describers, and the founding chair of the steering committee of Audio Description International. Snyder can be reached at 202/682-5591; 301/431-3008; or e-mail

Descriptive Video Service
Descriptive Video Service (DVS) is a national service that makes Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television programs, Hollywood movies on video, and other visual media accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired. DVS was launched nationally in 1990 by the WGBH Educational Foundation, producer of many prime-time public television programs and leader in the development of accessible media. DVS has offices in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles.

Media Access Generator (MAGpie)
Using MAGpie, you can integrate audio descriptions into Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL) presentations. You can also add captions to three multimedia formats: Apple's QuickTime, the World Wide Web Consortium's SMIL, and Microsoft's Synchronized Accessible Media Interchange (SAMI) format. You can download MAGpie from this site free of charge.

The Metropolitan Washington Ear, Inc
Established in 1974, The Metropolitan Washington Ear, Inc. is a nonprofit organization providing reading and information services for blind, visually impaired and physically disabled people who cannot effectively read print, see plays, watch television programs and films, or view museum exhibits. The Ear was the first in the nation to initiate an audio description program for theater in the early 1980s. This organization provides audio description services and also trains audio describers. The Ear can be reached at 35 University Boulevard East, Silver Spring, MD 20901 USA; 301/681-6636; FAX 301/681-5227.

Informed Consumer Guide to Assistive Technology for People with Hearing Disabilities
This document produced by ABLEDATA provides background information on all kinds of assistive devices for people with hearing loss. It concludes with an extensive list of manufacturers of assistive devices for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. This page is particularly useful for finding manufacturers of transmitters and receivers. For more information about such devices, see Assistive Listening Devices.

History of Audio Description

The concepts underlying audio description were first developed in the 1970s by Gregory Frazier, a professor at San Francisco State University. In the early 1980s, the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, collaborated with a group of accessibility advisors, including Cody and Margaret Pfanstiehl from the Metropolitan Washington Ear, Inc., to develop an audio description program for its live performances.

Since 1972, WGBH in Boston has been a leader in making television accessible. In 1987 WGBH created Descriptive Video Services (DVS), a subsidiary that provides audio description for television viewers. In areas where the local public television station is equipped to participate, DVS uses a special audio channel available on stereo televisions to broadcast audio descriptions for various programs. DVS has also engaged in providing audio description for first-run films in theaters nationwide.

Audio description began to spread within the museum field through projects such as the audio described tour for the National Museum of Natural History's "Exploring Marine Ecosystems" exhibit. Audio description has now found its way into large format theater productions, exhibition tours, planetarium programs, and theater productions at museums across the country. Some science centers and museums that have provided audio description for their visitors include the Audubon Institute, New Orleans; Chicago Botanic Garden; Denver Museum of Nature and Science; Franklin Institute, Philadelphia; Houston Museum of Natural Science; Museum of Science, Boston; National Building Museum, Washington, DC; and the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum and National Museum of Natural History.


This web site is not intended to offer legal, architectural, engineering, or similar professional advice. Refer specific questions to an attorney or an ADA authority.

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