Audio description as technical communication

So I’ve been thinking about audio description as technical communication, and in particular the value that an audio description assignment might have for technical communication undergrads.

According to the BBC’s Ouch!, audio description

is an extra audio commentary for blind or partially sighted people. When there is a gap in the dialogue on TV or at the theatre, for instance, an extra voice jumps in to explain anything visual going on so that visually impaired people can follow the plot.

For an example of audio description, see this audio described and captioned trailer for Horton Hears a Who!.

The task of audio describing a video presents a number of challenges for TC students:

  • how to accommodate technology to a specific group of users. Accommodating technology to users, making it usable and accessible — that’s what technical communication is all about. But just as captions can improve the experiences of all users (not just people who are deaf or hard of hearing), so too can audio descriptions, when done well, provide added value for a wider range of users (ideally not just blind or partially sighted users).
  • how to negotiate and appreciate the differences between visual and oral modes of communication. Translating video into audio is no small task, and thus holds the potential, I would suggest, to address a number of our programmatic learning goals (e.g. teaching students to be sensitive to the affordances and limitations of different media when designing documents).
  • how to work within a set of hard constraints. Technical communicators often work on documents that do not originate or end at their desks. They must regularly coordinate and negotiate with others. With audio descriptions, many of the constraints are inflexible. Both the original video and audio tracks are not open for editing, so any good audio description must be seamlessly inserted into the open spaces between turns of dialogue or other important sounds. The spaces available for “colonization” can be extremely limited in scenes that are dialogue-heavy or action-packed.
  • how to write and speak both creatively and concisely at the same time. In a text marked for audio description, space is limited, sometimes impressively so, and any good audio description must be both concise and appropriately descriptive. The tension between concision and description is one we might profitably exploit in our technical writing classrooms.

To be continued, perhaps in one of my fall TC courses…

S. Zdenek

Dr. Sean Zdenek is an associate professor of technical and professional writing at the University of Delaware. He is the author of Reading Sounds: Closed-Captioned Media and Popular Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2015).


6 Responses

  1. Greetings. First off, very nice on the XHTML Strict proviso in your comment instructions… Very rare indeed, seeing that spelled out!
    Your post here, though I’m not a student, is compelling and seems to echo a point that we’re trying to make with our Listening IS Learning campaign (a campaign focused on raising public awareness about description, both as necessary for access for people with visual impairments and for the majority of students, who learn better when two channels of their brain are stimulated simultaneously). I was wondering if, perhaps, one of your classes ever followed up on this idea and whether you’d be willing to share your thoughts on the matter.

  2. thomlohman: Thanks for bringing your website, Listening IS Learning, to my attention. The DCMP is doing important work to promote both captioning and audio description.

    I share your view that the steps we take to increase the accessibility of websites and other technologies for people with disabilities can also benefit the majority of people.

    I only have anecdotal evidence to offer in response to your question. Yes, I have had students caption and audio describe videos in my web accessibility course. And, yes, these assignments made students more acutely aware of the interplay between audio and video, the constraints under which captioning and description take place, and the ways in which captions and/or an additional audio track can enhance the experience for users by providing an added layer or channel of meaning. Since students created the described files and weren’t simply consumers of them, I can’t say whether they learned better through two-channel stimulation. That sounds like an interesting research study.

    I look forward to coming back to your website when it’s up and running.


  3. Thanks, Sean, for the kind words about the DCMP and LIL (and for the tweet with the link to LIL). It’s always great to stumble upon resources like your blog that promote accessibility (especially those that do so with an angle toward universal design or encouraging mainstream appeal of accessibility).

    Any chance that there are publicly-available examples of your students’ work, particularly that which involves D.I.Y. description? Our plans for LIL include a series of tutorial or informational resources on homebrew description, and it would be great to check out some examples or possibly consult with you or your students who have worked in this regard, if possible.

    Thanks again!

  4. One very good example jumps to mind immediately. I’ll contact the student and see if he wouldn’t mind being contacted by you (or wouldn’t mind having me share his description assignment with you). The example is a 3 or 4 minute clip from the animated movie Bolt (so it’s copyrighted, which might be a problem if you want to make it publicly available).

    I’m teaching Web Accessibility this summer as an online summer course at the graduate level. Perhaps we can arrange to work together in some capacity, share resources, etc. My email:


  5. Hi! I’m *totally* feeling this idea! I use audio descriptions in my first year comp class and I see that students respond very well to it! I’m also writing about how to adapt this into tech comm as layered literacy!

    Your blog is so cool–I love the captioning idea! =D

  6. Arwa,

    I’d like to hear more about your research and audio description assignment. Do you have links? Both sound very interesting.