Questions I’ve been asked about writing Audio Description tours
Some blind museum goers want as much description as possible. How does a museum serve them in a tour that seeks to serve both sighted and blind visitors?
Experienced museum visitors with sight loss might desire more descriptive detail than a general interest stop provides. One solution to accommodate them is to provide an extra “layer” of description. For example, a general interest stop might end with “For more detailed audio description, press the number 5 key now.”
Does a general interest audio tour and an audio description tour have different goals?
Both tours share the goal of helping users look more closely and carefully. Both tours can focus attention, making for a richer experience. Both desire to share curatorial and historical information. It can provide that information in audio, especially if sighted visitors choose not to read wall labels. But for visitors with vision loss, audio description can not only describe how something looks, but also help in understanding why it looks that way, and what it might mean that it looks that way.
Are there different approaches used by museums to provide audio description in tours?
The traditional approach is that if a museum produced an audio tour for a sighted audience, then it had to produce a separate tour for people with vision loss. Many museums still use this model.
Some museums have discovered that it is possible to create accessible, inclusive audio tours that can serve sighted visitors and visitors with vision loss. Tour scripts integrate audio description with curatorial or historical information. It’s an approach that reflects a goal of inclusiveness, not just accessibility. People can share common experiences and not be separated by ability.
Other museums use a hybrid approach, creating a new audio tour heavy with audio description that can be linked to a museum’s traditional audio tour that might include context, history artist biography, and artist technique. This can also save a museum the cost of producing two tours.
If a museum creates an inclusive audio tour that integrates audio description with traditional content, won’t sighted museum visitors object to hearing a description of something they can see for themselves?
I have never found that to be a problem. First, people like to have their perceptions confirmed (“Ah, yes I see that.”) and to have details pointed out (“Oh, I didn’t notice that.”). Second, many visitors choose not to read wall labels. Listening is easier.
If my museum produces an inclusive audio tour, should I inform sighted visitors that the tour contains audio description?
That is not necessary if the tour script has the correct balance of curatorial or historical information and audio description, with tour stops that do not bore either audience.
Integrating audio description can make audio stops longer, but not excessively so. I find it is possible write such tours with the correct balance. To do this it helps to always keep the visitor experience in mind. Ask yourself, how long would I comfortably stand and listen?
How can I write audio description of art works in a way that helps a listener understand and appreciate a work without influencing their perception and interpretation?
Writers should use accurate and objective language so that they don’t sway a listener’s
reactions, for example in describing colors, the pose of figures, or their size and placement with a painting frame. The goal should be to give the listener description that helps them make their own interpretation.
In describing art works, often there is an important relationship between the implicit content and the technique or medium an artist uses. Detailed information on those topics can help a person with vision loss understand how meaning, style, or both are generated from the materials. Technique and medium are functions of each other, and typically discussion of one must include the other.
The goal is to describe the elements of a work that help listeners answer the question, “What did the artist do in this work that leads me to a certain reaction or idea?”
How about the use of audio description on a web site or for an online virtual tour?
In a museum education workshop, or on a museum web site, audio description scripts can be longer than those written for an in-museum tour. When listeners are seated, whether in a group setting in a museum or at home alone exploring a web site, they are able to listen to longer descriptions. Two examples are the Art Beyond Sites New York Beyond Sight and American Art. The audio description scripts on those sites range from three and half to six minutes.
What about using audio description with tactiles?
Combining touch and hearing can be a rich experience, for example listening to an audio description while touching a model or a raised line drawing. In a museum tour, it may not be practical as a person with vision loss may be using a cane or service animal, besides their phone or audio player. It might be more successful in a seated workshop setting.