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The Audio Description Project

Audio Description International Conference 2002

Presented by
Audio Description International
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
March 23-24, 2002

Standards, Training, and Certification

Facilitator - Craig Dreeszen, Arts Extension Service

Speakers: Anne Hornsby, Secretary, Audio Description Association, England; Dr. Marc Rosen, Director, AudioVision Canada; Ermyn King, Coordinator of the Arts and Health Outreach Initiative, Pennsylvania State University; Kim Charlson, Audio Description Coordinator for the Bay State Council of the Blind

Anne Hornsby: AD began in England in 1986. The Royal National Institute for the Blind has always been a great advocate of AD. Indeed, in 1992 the RNIB set up AUDEST to develop standards of excellence in AD by establishing a basic training course for describers and courses for trainers. However, by 1997, when the Audio Description Association held its first meeting in England, an inconsistency in standards had been noticed across England and it was felt that an accredited training course was needed. In 1999, the association began the development of such a course in association with the Open College Network. Aims, learning outcomes, and assessment criteria were developed along with a sample course syllabus, the entry requirements, and an outline of a prior learning certification. The aim of the course is to equip individuals with the basic knowledge and skills to describe theater, cinema, television, and other art forms; to provide a quality service for visually impaired people, and to make an informed contribution to other aspects of AD. A "Level III" course (designed for people 18 years of age and older), it runs for 60 hours five days teaching time as well as home study. An audition is required for acceptance to training that assesses language skills, teamwork, and commitment to the principles of access. Two trainers along with a visually impaired advisor lead the course. Further, an "external moderator" from the Open College Network attends in order to ensure consistency and quality. All trainers receive training and must be certified in assessment of students according to specific learning outcomes.  Currently, there are eight trained trainers in England and Scotland. (A list of AD learning outcomes is available.)

All AD trainees must accomplish eight tasks including writing and delivery of an introduction to a theater production which includes a description of the set, costumes, and characters; and the delivery of a live, prepared AD for a video excerpt (20 minutes). Two tasks involve access issues and the British Disability Discrimination Act, and others focus on use of AD equipment. Finally, trainees must exhibit an awareness of staff responsibilities within the theatre where they will be working which affect AD.

The AD course is intensive, run over 3 weekends, and involves a fair amount of paperwork in order to document and record trainee achievements. Samples of course work, assessment sheets and learner feedback are sent to a number of individuals including another trained Audio Description trainer and a representative of the Open College Network. The course sessions themselves are monitored to ensure that decisions on whether or not a learner had achieved the necessary level were fair, rigorous, transparent and in keeping with those made by other trainers on other courses.

A training weekend for describers was recently held for individuals who wish to be certified as describers based their prior experience in the field. At this weekend describers were assessed on a piece of description and an introduction. It is hoped that in England and Scotland training courses will use the accredited model resulting in more accredited describers and an increase in standards. The goal is an assurance that wherever you go in the UK, the standard of the audio description service you receive will be equally high and equally professional, whether delivered by paid or non-paid describers.

Marc Rosen: Marc spoke of the respect he has for describers of live events, coming from a firm that focuses on AD for television. He did note that AudioVision Canada once prepared an audio tour of the Canada Pavilion at the Expo in Lisbon and relayed the traffic flow concerns and other logistical particulars that made the effort a challenge to provide access for people who are vision impaired. Indeed, Marc pointed out that he uses the phrase "vision impaired" to refer to AD users as opposed to visually impaired which means, "you don't look good."

AV Canada uses describers based all over Canada who develop descriptions at home. Consequently, a describer training program was developed in 1996 that individuals can complete at home. It has ten lessons and takes about 40 hours. It culminates in three description exercises, the development of description for three different movie excerpts. These descriptions are then submitted for evaluation. Essentially, describers are asked to think about what to describe, how to describe it, and then consider "word allowance" issues.

Marc then offered some "guidelines for good describing":

  1. Understand what someone who can't see needs to know to understand and appreciate "the show." It's a "knack" to be able to "unsee" or dispel assumptions based on what has been seen in order to appreciate what an AD user needs, i.e., the ability to leave out things that are unnecessary and include things that may be obvious but can be easily overlooked.
  2. Understand and appreciate the show. Describe in a way that makes the significance of what's being described apparent to the AD user.
  3. Be the best audience this show could hope for. Avoid any hint of personal opinion regarding the show being described.
  4. Observe closely and accurately. You can't describe something well if you haven't done that. We're too used to taking a lot of information with our eyes without noticing it carefully.
  5. Write simply, clearly, and concisely. What is said must be comprehended the first time it's heard. Almost any description is better than nothing, the exception being description that's confusing. The better the description, the simpler and more obvious it is.
  6. Respect the audio. Don't describe things that are apparent from the soundtrack and avoid talking over dialogue or sound effects unless absolutely necessary to convey essential information.
  7. Disappear. Good description directs attention to the show, not to itself.
  8. Harmonize vocal delivery with the emotional content of the show. If the narrator describes a love scene and sounds just the same as when describing a bloody massacre, it reduces audience enjoyment.
Ermyn King: Ermyn pointed out that the AD service she works with is different than the ones that Marc and Anne detailed. "View via Headphones" is based in a community of 90,000 and at a land grant university, Pennsylvania State University. It's not a national service but rather focused on one community, integrating AD within a community context. She emphasized mechanisms for sustaining quality in AD services within a community.

The program is in the geographic center of Pennsylvania and the university serves 42,000 students. Quality in AD is not simply a matter of adhering to standards; it also involves building a climate in the community for "buy in" of the program. Five theaters are on campus in addition to others in the surrounding area and all located nearby. Ermyn distributed a handout that detailed background on the service so focused her remarks on how the service grew in quality and related to existing AD services. First, Margaret and Cody Pfanstiehl from Washington, DC gave a public presentation on AD, as did John McEwen from New Jersey. Next, a call for auditions for describers was sent out highlighting particular qualities: easily understood speaking capabilities, the capacity to provide vivid descriptions, anticipated residency in the community for at least two years, a love of the arts, a desire to provide community service, and attendance at a weekend of AD training provided by Alan Woods and Nancy Van Voorhis of Ohio. Over 30 people auditioned; 12 trainees were accepted.

Training was held and Penn State provided Continuing Education credits and certificates for successful completion of the 18-hour training. The training was formally described as:

"Participants will receive instruction and be individually critiqued, including by consultants with sight loss, in Audio Description, a communication art whereby persons use a small transmitter to describe visual elements of theater, dance, film, museum presentations, and other events to individuals with sight loss wearing earphones attached to palm-sized receivers. The history of AD, its relation to the Americans with Disabilities Act, and national and international examples of its application will be discussed. Principles related to description of realistic and stylized theater and dance performance will be emphasized and practiced. Attendance at a professionally audio described performance with review of the equipment utilized and follow-up analysis of AD techniques employed will also be a key instructional component of the training."

An important asset in the community is an active social service agency, the Sight Loss Support Group of Central Pennsylvania. This group provided audition space and has been the administrative home of the AD service. Consequently, we were linked from the beginning to an organized community of potential AD users.

Following an initial described event, post-event telephone interviews with AD consumers were conducted. Questions asked included: "How helpful were the program notes provided before each act or scene in enhancing your appreciation or understanding of the performance? How closely did each describer's voice conform to the ideal of being comfortably and emotionally in tune with the scenes? How helpful was each describer in providing vivid, objective details of the colors, characters, body language, lighting, scenery, etc.? Did each describer refrain from describing what was aurally obvious or talking over the actors' lines? How effective was each describer in allowing you to be a participant in the unfolding drama performance? In terms of timing and content, was information revealed so as not to give away too much too fast? And at any point in your experience, did the describer's work flow so seamlessly into the play that you were almost unaware of it?"

The program was launched with a production of the musical "Camelot," and the availability of AD was well publicized in appropriate newsletters and web sites. An equipment register is kept in a log book and attendants record comments that are received from clients.

The service is also linked to the museums on campus. Programs are offered at the Palmer Museum of Art and the service is also a part of "Festival Eyes," a Sight Loss Center program that trains sighted guides in multi-sensory techniques for consumers at visual arts and other events. Joel Snyder of Washington, DC was a speaker to the describers at one of these Festival Eyes events.

The program has a steering committee of over 25 members formed in establishing the service. Meetings are held regularly. Members include representatives from support organizations, the theater companies, AD consumers and many others. In the first year, AD was provided for 45 cultural events and 346 users were served. Appeals are made to professionals in vision care in the community and others to contribute financially to the support of the service and the cost of tickets to events. Listings of supporters appear in the programs of the University's Center for the Performing Arts.

Professional development is ongoing. Initially, describers met every month to build skills using DVS tapes and non-described versions; a coordinator of professional development leads these sessions. Formal sessions are now conducted three or four times a year and feature specialized discussions on AD for particular art forms such as dance or visual arts. A video loan library of DVS tapes is maintained, coupled with the non-described version.

Normally two describers work at a given event, one as a "back up." A guide has been developed to clearly outline what is done logistically upon arriving at a theater for a described performance. Each describer wears special tee shirts and name badges; describers are also introduced to ushers and other theater personnel. A video overview of the service, funded by VSA arts, and articles in the news media also contribute to the service's visibility. The Center for the Performing Arts has produced a brochure that further publicizes the service. The service was recently awarded one of 12 "Keystones of Accessibility" awards in the state of Pennsylvania.

Finally, the program is interested in sponsoring a national training for audio describers with academic credit provided by the University.

Kim Charlson: Kim provided some background on AD in the Boston area, the home of WGBH and DVS. Blind people in Massachusetts have spent 16 years helping WGBH evolve description. In doing so, the community of AD users developed a certain sophistication about AD and what they wanted from it. In 1992, the first theater in Massachusetts to offer live AD was the Wheelock Family Theater and since that time they've provided AD for every one of their productions. Since then, various other theaters have come on board.

The Bay State Council of the Blind (BSCB) has helped to boost and respond to demand for AD with the goal being that every show in Massachusetts will offer AD and AD users will no longer have to pick and choose among limited offerings. Initially, theaters argued that providing AD would be too expensive. So the BSCB approached the Wang Center for the Performing Arts in Boston and proposed a grant for the purchase of AD equipment if the Wang Center would maintain the equipment and loan it to other theaters.

BSCB has always used scripted AD. It's believed that the crafting of AD is an art and that describers are skilled professionals in the field who should be paid. [applause] A secondary describer offers a pre-show introduction, consisting principally of descriptions of sets and costumes. A primary describer delivers descriptions for the show as it runs. A team of consultants (other describers and experienced AD users/blindness consultants) attends a dress rehearsal of the description to provide feedback to the describers prior to his/her actual "performance." It's important for AD users providing feedback do so in a constructively critical manner rather than simply thanking the describer and praising his/her work.

It's important to note that blind people represent a whole section of the community that's been marginalized with respect to theater. Consequently, everyone involved with AD must be creative about encouraging blind people to take advantage of the service. It's also important to ensure that theater staff has experienced access training.  An usher who pushes a blind person in his or her seat can undermine the best description in the world.

BSCB has partnered with the Cultural Access Consortium in Boston and VSA arts of Massachusetts in order to stretch resources. Two years ago BSCB received a grant from VSA arts to provide full training in description for 16 new describers. Joel Snyder of Audio Description Associates conducted the training along with one of the region's most experienced describers, Andrea Doane. BSCB and the Consortium have set up a database of describers in the region to coordinate the assignment of describers for particular shows.

Eventually, four people - Kim, Judy Berk of the Consortium, Andrea Doane, and Valerie Ching, one of our newly trained describers felt the need to write down much of what had been developed. The ideas, the background, the process the how and the why of our AD program became the foundation of a publication on AD. It's called "Making Theater Accessible: A Guidebook to Audio Description in the Performing Arts" and discusses AD from a variety of perspectives: a theater producer, an education/outreach coordinator, a blind person, and a describer. It includes a step-by-step planning guide to help other communities set up an AD program. [copies available for purchase]

Lastly, one concern raised by theaters has been the availability of a description booth. BSCB is now seeking funding to buy a portable, soundproof booth for AD. It's easily set up and BSCB looks forward to being able to loan it out to theaters that lack an appropriate area for describing.

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