How Audio Descriptions Enhance Accessibility (And When to Use Them)

October 6, 2022

Do you need to add audio descriptions to your videos? Maybe — but only in specific circumstances. 

Audio descriptions (ADs) verbally describe visual information, including actions, scenery, or gestures. They improve accessibility by providing another way to understand visual media (most commonly, videos, but audio descriptions can also improve accessibility for graphs, slideshows, and other visual-first content). This benefits internet users with vision-related conditions and some people with cognitive conditions. 

Here’s a quick example of how an audio description improves accessibility: Your website publishes a promotional video. Halfway through the scene, one of the actors throws up her hands and walks out of frame, and another actor walks in and starts speaking. 

That type of change might be confusing for people who are listening to the audio alone. An AD track could explain what just happened: 

Mary walks away while throwing up her hands in exasperation. Tom walks in.

If you’re publishing videos, you may need to provide audio descriptions for your users — but if your audience can understand your content through the primary audio track, no audio description is necessary.

What does WCAG say about audio descriptions?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the international standards for accessibility. WCAG requires either audio descriptions or transcripts at the Level A conformance level, but audio descriptions are required at the Level AA conformance level (read more about the three WCAG conformance levels). 

The relevant WCAG Success Criteria (SC) are listed below:

Most websites should aim for Level AA conformance, so audio descriptions are generally necessary — but again, it’s important to remember that many videos don’t benefit from ADs. 

As the WCAG authors note, “if all of the information in the video track is already provided in the audio track, no audio description is necessary.”

For example, if a video simply contains a “talking head" discussing your product, adding additional audio won’t improve accessibility. You’ll need to evaluate each video on a case-by-case basis to determine the best approach. 

Related: Make Your Digital Media More Accessible By Providing Options

Quick Tips for Adding Audio Descriptions to Multimedia

You can add audio descriptions to media as a selectable soundtrack, but if your video player doesn’t support alternate soundtracks, you can also provide a hyperlink to an AD version of the same video. Make sure your hyperlink appears right above or below the video so that users can find it. 

Some tips to keep in mind when writing AD tracks: 

Be descriptive

While ADs should synchronize with the video, their purpose is to give users enough information to understand every visual element. It’s acceptable to write long descriptions with animated language.

Listen to this audio description for the opening scene of Disney’s The Lion King. The script describes everything that happens on screen, using descriptive adjectives to provide users with the same experience.

Use language that is meaningful to people with vision impairments

Start by describing the scene and important landmarks. Use clear terms to describe the proximity or location of different objects and characters. For example: 

A man in a suit stands at the edge of a cliff on a bright, sunny day. The cliff is 100 feet tall.

Stick with important information. For example, the man might be wearing a black t-shirt, but if that’s not important to the context of the video, you don’t need to mention his clothing in the AD track — but if the man is dressed in a tuxedo because he’d recently attended a formal party, you should include that information.

Remember, the AD soundtrack should provide the same basic experience as watching the video. If your description reads like a short story or novel, you’re on the right track. 

Related: What’s the Acceptable Format for Media Captions and Transcripts? 

Write your AD track while drafting the script for your video.

Like many aspects of digital accessibility, audio descriptions are much easier to implement when you prioritize users with disabilities from the beginning. When drafting video scripts, write your AD track, captions, and a full transcript. Providing all three options will help you accommodate as many people as possible. 

Other quick tips: 

  • Try to keep your AD track synchronized with the video. 
  • When recording the track, speak clearly at an appropriate pace.
  • If silence or background noises are important, don’t talk over them. Your AD track doesn’t need to fill every moment of silence in the standard audio track.
  • Avoid talking over dialogue, sound effects, and other important sounds.

For more guidance on video accessibility, send us a message to connect with an accessibility expert.

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