Sight unseen: Audio describers speak between the lines

By Heather Longley
August 05, 2015

Performing arts audience members with visual impairments might get more out of a live performance than their sighted seatmates 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, said 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 said 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 said.

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

“One very important feature of our process is the 15-minute presentation of notes we offer, pre-show,” she said. “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,” said 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,” said Snyder, who emphasized 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 said.

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 said. 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,” said patron McManus, who is blind.

While at least half of the seats at most performances are filled by patrons 40 and older, Anslinger said, 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 said.

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 said.

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

How to use View Via Headphones

I decided to try Sight Loss Support Group’s View Via Headphones audio description service at a Fuse Productions staging of "Les Misérables."

I headed to the Audience Services desk—at your right as you enter Eisenhower Auditorium’s lobby. There I requested the free use of a receiver and an earbud for the evening. Once at my seat, I turned on the receiver and set it at a comfortable volume.

For some shows, the audio describer has notes written out in advance, such as for the support group’s garden and gallery tours, plus local theatre company shows. But, said Anslinger, “most productions are in house for one night only. We’ve become very skilled at audio describing ‘cold.’ ”

Twenty minutes before showtime, the describer had already started offering details on the minimalist two-piece set.

“An 8-foot archway depicting the underground of the streets of Paris. Chorus members rotate the set themselves throughout the show,” volunteer audio describer David Flick said.

He described the stage’s backdrop, what would happen in each act, what soldiers and factory workers would be wearing, and the hits and misses delivered by critics when "Les Misérables" was on Broadway.

When the show started, Flick was careful not to talk over the singing, and I had no trouble adapting to wearing the small earbud.

  • An audio describer from Sight Loss Support Group sits in a sound-proof booth and reads program notes to audience members wearing an earbud.

    An audio describer from Sight Loss Support Group reads program notes to audience members wearing an earbud.

    IMAGE: Susan Kennedy

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated August 05, 2015