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What are integrated audio descriptions and how to write them

Research and development

In recent years, videos have become a dominant element in websites and apps. Thanks to their immediacy and communicative effectiveness, they are one of the preferred choices for content delivery by marketers and large companies.

Like any other content, videos should be accessible so that all users, being them blind or low vision users, deaf or hard of hearing, can access the conveyed information or enjoy the entertainment content. This applies to all kinds of video: vlogs, commercial spots, tutorials, tv shows or films.

Video accessibility – like e-book accessibility – must be thought of in terms of an entire accessibility ecosystem, which includes the different stages of video production, from content design and creation to the video player choice, which must also be accessible, and the same goes for the distribution platform, whetere it’s a website or a dedicated app.

But when it comes to the video itself, how can we make it accessible? There are four main tools to improve video accessibility: captions, transcript, sign language translation and audio description. Each one has its own features and best practices, and while all users can benefit from the presence of captions or a transcript, translation into sign language and audio-description meet the specific needs of users with disabilities.

Integrated audio description

Let us focus in particular on audio description. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) give us the following definition: “narration added to the soundtrack to describe important visual details that cannot be understood from the main soundtrack alone”. Audio descriptions are typically used to make films and long videos accessible and provide information about: actions, characters, change of scene, overlay text and important visual content. Audio descriptions complete the regular audio track of a video, providing all the information that allows blind and low vision users to understand what’s happening on the screen.

There are two types of audio description: standard audio description and integrated audio description. To explain the difference, Microsoft Accessibility has published a short video which also gives simple tips on how to create effective integrated audio descriptions:

Unlike standard audio description – which is a secondary narration track providing additional information necessary to understand the content of the video – with integrated audio description, things happening on the screen are described directly in the dialogue or in the main narration, which means that there is no need for a secondary, additional narration track. The content of these audio descriptions is integrated into the main script and recording. This solution works particularly well for certain tutorials and instructional videos, where the speakers can include in their explanation all the details necessary for an exact understanding of the operations to be carried out.

Preparing an audio description can be quite a challenge, especially in the case of complex videos with a lot of visual details that cannot be understood from the main audio track – let’s think, for example, of a fight scene.

There are, however, some simple tips to help writing good integrated audio descriptions:

  • Give context to sound: when there are sounds related to the environment or situation in which the characters are on the screen, the dialogue that follows should provide the necessary information to correctly interpret these sounds, if relevant to the understanding of the scene. For example, the ringing of a doorbell may be followed by a character’s comment about the delivery of a shipment;
  • Show and tell: the narration should describe what’s happening on the screen;
  • Don’t over-describe: it is not necessary to describe every single detail of the scene. A good practice is to choose descriptive words. For example, “a bundle of colourful balloons” is descriptive enough, there’s no need to list every color.

When realizing your videos, keep accessibility in mind from the start: this will help include as much information as possible directly in the main audio track, resulting in more accessible videos even if no standard audio description is provided.