Audio Description in the West Midlands Arts and Culture Sector

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by Benjamin Sibertz-Willett

I applied to the Undergraduate Research Scheme about three hours before the applications closed, mostly as a ‘let’s see what the application process and interview are like’. I wasn’t really expecting anything to come of it. The project I applied for was ‘Audio Description in the West Midlands Arts and Culture Sector’ which aimed to research the provision of, and policies around, Audio Description in local organisations through the means of surveys, personal contact with organisations and site visits. Instead of the perhaps dry project which I expected, I’ve been treated to a fabulously rewarding summer of first-hand research with people at the forefront of innovation.

To begin with, I knew absolutely nothing about Audio Description, other than that it existed, so the first few days were spent immersing myself in the resources which, my supervisor, Sarah, had provided. This involved browsing a multitude of websites, following the chain of provision from the arts organisations to the users via the audio describers. Throughout this process, I read a number of personal testimonies from people all along this chain, venting frustration at relative lack of provision, or appealing for funding so that a theatre could continue to offer provision which were keystones for the performance experiences of visually impaired people. However, two particular articles stand out beyond the rest. One was a testimony from a visually impaired person who watched an audio described film for the first time and described the experience as if they were ‘seeing in colour rather than black and white’. For the first time, they felt fully engaged with the plot, the characters and the film as a coherent whole [1]. The second was about the use of audio description  beyond visually  impaired  people. This article highlighted the benefits of  audio description (AD) to people with ADD, ADHD and to those with concentration difficulties. As a result of both articles, I found that the capacity of AD to improve people’s lives was much deeper and much wider than I  had previously realised. Online research yielded further innovative  uses of  audio  description, including Channel4’s Trailer for the 2016 Rio Paralympics [2]. Though the premise of the trailer was not entirely well-received [3][4], it  does a  really good job of  incorporating  audio description into a  slick product, countering the  popular perception that AD  is  clunky  and  gets in  the  way of  the  aesthetic considerations. These resources spurred me to find ways in which audio description was being used to improve people’s lives with tangible and real effects.

The bulk of my research consisted of a survey, emailed out to twenty-three arts and culture organisations in the West Midlands, from which I received eight responses. Fortunately, the responses were from a relatively  balanced  group  of  organisations,  including  three  visual  art   and  three  performance  art organisations,  one  that  offered both and  a  tourist  attraction.  This meant that  the  analysis  which  I conducted on the responses was able to be a bit more varied than just theatres. In my head, the survey section of the project was going to take up two weeks, maximum. However, chasing responses over the summer holiday period,  when staff often take their  annual leave, stretched this  into a  much longer process, and had implications for the overall length of the project. From the eight responses, I selected four to compile case studies on and was engaged in more detailed communication with representatives from these organisations, including a site visit to the Black Country Living Museum, to experience their provision first-hand. At time of writing, both the general analysis and the case studies are available online [5][6].

Throughout this project, I’ve learnt a great deal, not only about the specifics of audio description, but also about my own working practices and preferences. I’ve had to juggle busy schedules (both others’ and my own) as well as work within tight restrictions to ensure that a goal is met. In short, I’ve developed skills that will serve me very well as I continue with my university experience and beyond, into the wonderful scary world of the arts.

[1]   -   Thompson,  Hannah.   2012.    Audio   Description.   Published   on   ‘Blind   Spot’:   http://hannah-[Accessed Sept 2019].

[2] -  Channel 4. 2016.  We're The Superhumans | Rio Paralympics 2016  Trailer.  Published on YouTube: [Accessed Sept 2019].

[3]  -  Catchpole, Lucy. 2016.  I love Channel 4’s Paralympics advert. But we can’t all  be superhumans. Published online in the Guardian: paralympics-advert-disabled-people-not-all-superhuman [Accessed Sept 2019].

[4] - Grant, Katie. 2016.  Why Channel 4's Paralympics advert risks alienating disabled people more than ever. Published online  at advert-risks-alienating-disabled-people-ever-536475 [Accessed Sept 2019].

[5] - Fishwick, Sarah. Siebertz-Willett, Ben. 2019. Survey Analysis, Audio Description in the West Midlands Arts             and             Culture             Sector.             Available             through             Google             Drive: [Accessed Sept 2019].

[6] - Fishwick, Sarah. Siebertz-Willett, Ben. 2019. Survey Analysis, Audio Description in the West Midlands Arts             and             Culture             Sector.             Available             through             Google             Drive: [Accessed Sept 2019].

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