An Image of Chloe Phillips during her performance of The importance of being described... earnestly
Chloe Phillips in Taking Flight Theatre's production of As You Like It.

Access: Audio description

Shape Arts’ Programme Coordinator Fiona Slater reflects on a recent Audio Description (AD) Conference and a new, downloadable resource “Top Tips for making your event more inclusive for visually impaired people”

I remember a trip to a well-known London dance venue just over ten years ago. I was whispering frantically into my neighbour’s ear throughout in an attempt to convey the action onstage, which she couldn’t see; there was certainly no provision for Audio Description so we were making do, with wildly inaccurate dance terminology and scathing glares from audience members in front.

Since then, AD for dance, theatre, moving image and visual arts has become more widely available but we have a long way to go before blind and visually impaired audiences have equal access and equal choice within the cultural sector.

As Unlimited Impact-supported artist Chloe Phillips recently reflected:

‘There are probably lots of VIPs who don’t go to the theatre, not because they’re not interested, but because they presume there won’t be access.’

To read her the full article on Disability arts online click here.

After attending a recent one-day conference held by the Audio Description Association on Monday 14th March at The Birmingham Hippodrome (the first of its kind in 19 years!), I found myself thinking on this and looking forward to the exciting possibilities ahead. This meeting of venue representatives, audio describers and service users provided an invaluable opportunity to share best practice, discuss common pitfalls and find out about new, exciting (and slightly scary) technical access tools. I’ll go over a few of the key themes:


Offer variety

Whether it’s how you find out about an event or the way in which the audio description is delivered, the importance of offering audiences a choice was highlighted over and over again throughout the day. Whilst 98% of under-30s with a visual impairment use Twitter and social media, some older patrons may prefer word-of-mouth or alternative means of communication to find out about services and access events. Don’t assume social media isn’t relevant for blind and visually impaired people, but similarly don’t treat this as the only means to connect with your audiences.

Do you only want to go to the theatre on Wednesday or Saturday afternoon? No? Well, blind and visually impaired audiences don’t either. Make sure that accessible events are on offer at different times of day during the week and on the weekend.

Stay on Top of Technology

I found it heartening to hear that many larger organisations are undertaking pioneering work in the technological development of AD, such as Sennheiser’s new MobileConnect app, designed to make live audio streaming, audio description and assistive listening possible everywhere, or the Science Museum’s Audio Eyes app which uses Bluetooth beacons to assist navigation around a gallery space (I don’t have a clue either!).


Talk to audiences

As with any access event the importance of consultation with disabled audiences can’t be stressed enough. Not everyone will want the same thing interpreted in the same way but the direct input and feedback of blind and visually impaired people not only helps reiterate the importance of offering audio description – by introducing you to the people that will utilise it – but will also allow you to fine tune your service.


Think creatively and get stuck in!

Artworks and theatrical pieces by people and companies such as Birds of Paradise, Chloe Phillips and Claire Cunningham were held up as positive examples of how exciting, creative audio description (or any other access) tools have been incorporated into the works themselves from their inceptions. By utilising what is now more commonly known as ‘the Aesthetics of Access’, artists are blurring the boundaries of access-interpreted performance and providing a heightened experience of work for everyone, all the time. If you are a creative, are you thinking creatively about your access offer?

Julia Grundy’s live audio description, half way through the day, was an inspiring (and slightly intimidating) example of the skill and professionalism that an Audio Describer with over twenty years’ experience can bring, but service users also reiterated that any provision for Audio Description is better than none. If you really can’t offer a professional live or recorded AD for your events and exhibitions then think about your alternatives, and give them a go!

Top Tips

The ADA conference offered a fantastic opportunity to share learning and best practice, so here is some of our own:

To download the pdf version click here.

To download the word version click here.

This document was compiled by Access Consultant Jayne Earnscliffe following her 2014 audit of the Brighton Dome Festival’s access provision for visually impaired audiences. Read more about this Unlimited Impact supported project here.