Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Sight unseen: Audio describers speak between the lines

By Heather Longley

Performing arts audience members with visual impairments might get more out of a live performance than their sighted seatmates do thanks to View Via Headphones, an audio description program created by the Sight Loss Support Group of Central Pennsylvania and implemented at the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State in 1999.

According to Nanette Anslinger, support group secretary and audio describer, the program has made the performing arts accessible to patrons of hundreds of local performances. But it provides more than access to an event’s visual elements; an audio describer puts it all into context.

“I never stopped going to the theatre” since experiencing sight loss, says Josie Kantner Smith, a Sight Loss Support Group board member. View Via Headphones “really enhanced my appreciation of what I’m taking in. I was missing a lot more than I realized.”

“The hard part of that is, since I can’t see (the show), I don’t know what I’m missing,” adds Michelle McManus, a View Via Headphones user and an information technology consultant at Penn State.

A 1998 study by the American Foundation for the Blind found that, through audio description programming, television viewers reported a better understanding of the material and a more enhanced social connection with people who don’t identify as vision impaired.

The concept of audio description began in the early 1970s, when, according to a New York Times obituary, San Francisco State University Professor Gregory Frazier stumbled upon success after describing a screening of the film High Noon to a blind friend.

The process, marked by a set of strict standards and objective perspective, is meant to give vision-impaired audiences a verbal description of a show’s visual elements—sight gags, unspoken stage cues, body language, set layout, and costumes—in order to help convey its plot.

When a describer shares visual information to a blind or vision-impaired person, that patron experiences the show at the same time and in the same manner as his or her neighbors.

Anslinger says she saw this desire to be able to better relate to one’s peers as an opportunity to get involved in the program.

“I had several friends and family members with vision loss and was frustrated at their lack of being able to fully cognate and appreciate the visual aspects of the theatre productions they attended,” she says.

While the program was created to enable those with vision impairments better to enjoy and comprehend a performance, every patron is eligible to use the free service. Anslinger says she has known some gainfully sighted patrons to use View Via Headphones.

“One very important feature of our process is the fifteen-minute presentation of notes we offer, pre-show,” she says. “Sighted users of audio description report that is valuable information. … (They) notice aspects of a production they might otherwise have not.”

Patrons of the service will know quality description when they hear it.

“People have been describing (things) forever and ever. It’s as simple as you telling a friend what you were doing today, you saw this and did that, recounting all these things to someone who wasn’t there,” says Dr. Joel Snyder, president of Audio Description Associates and director of the American Council of the Blind’s Audio Description Project.

Snyder is a major proponent of this type of word-of-mouth program. He has hosted training seminars worldwide and promotes his own set of audio describing “rules.”

“Certain techniques make for better description,” Snyder says, who emphasizes these fundamentals: observation (increasing awareness of visual elements), edit (breaking down what is observed into only what’s necessary), language (embracing vocabulary), and vocal skills (using vocal inflection to create meaning).

“Folks who are sighted see but don’t observe, so you learn things” during an audio-described performance, he says.

For example, “Most people in the theatre don’t know what a plié is, when you bend your knees down. It’s a basic ballet fundamental,” Snyder says. In audio describing, “you wouldn’t say ‘plié’ without the description. If you do use the term, you then describe what it is.”

The service can have minor drawbacks. “You can end up paying more attention to the description than the play every once in a while,” says patron McManus, who is blind.

While at least half of the seats at most performances are filled by patrons 40 and older, Anslinger says, audio description users range in age.

“While we used to have a larger number of younger clients, the availability and increasing use of technology has seemed to overshadow the personal experience of seeing a live theatre production,” she says.

Despite the dip in involvement, she emphasizes the benefit of the audio description program to all patrons.

“We encourage sighted persons to use audio description in order to help us educate the general public the valuable service that is available to the blind and vision impaired,” she says.

Go to described events to see which Center for the Performing Arts presentations are audio described.