Thinking about Description

Jessica Swanson

September 18, 2017


ADA compliance; inclusive interpretation; performing arts; verbal description



What is this study about?

Cultural arts description is a set of practices used to communicate visual information to people with vision loss.  It provides equitable access to information contained in the visual elements of an exhibition, film, performance, etc.  The practice may be referred to as verbal description, audio description, visual description, or video description.  The variety of terms used to identify this accommodation is daunting as the nuances are not clearly defined and the terms are used inconsistently.  This document provides a brief overview of current description practices as well as resources for further review.

Top line summary

This paper defines two principle approaches towards accessible description: Audio (factual visual elements) and Verbal (including contextual information for a broader understanding). It emphasizes three critical elements for success: accuracy, language and vocabulary, appropriate choices. Finally, it gives tips for getting started and directs you to key resources.


Approaches to Description

The type of experience (educational/entertainment) and audience (general public or specific individual) determines how or who provides the description (professional describer, casual visitor, or curator) and what kind of information is included in the description (factual/ interpretive or formal/casual).

Cultural arts settings use one of two types of description, each of which provides different degrees of information to the listener.  Audio description is the factual visual elements of an object, performance, space, etc., made aural.  Describers focus on tangible, observable details including size, shape, color, texture, movement, and pattern; read labels, programs, and other accompanying text; use vivid language but avoid adjectives that confer a judgment (one person’s “gaudy” might be another person’s “beautiful”); and communicates information so that the listener forms his or her own independent opinion.   Verbal description weaves observable, factual elements in alongside contextual information for a broader understanding of the piece.  This additional interpretive information can include elements such as background about the era in which the piece was created, the methods employed in its production, the materials from which it is made, how the object may have been used, and other details that tell the “story” of the piece or object.   Verbal and audio description are most often provided by trained, professional describers or individuals with significant knowledge of the subject matter, such as curators.

Joshua Miele at the Smith Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, home of the YouDescribe project, considers the relationships between the describer, the listener, and the object/item being described as a more useful framework for description.  This approach embraces professional and amateur describers such as friends, family members, or other patrons or visitors communicating visual information for others.  The connections between describer, listener, and object will influence the way the information is conveyed and the language that is used.  For example:

“Commercial description” is highly curated. Professionally trained describers make choices about language and content for a generalized audience/listener. There is no relationship between the describer and consumer of the description.

“Social description” is not curated.  It is a spontaneous communication between describer and viewer/consumer who have relationship to each other and to the item being described.  Think of how you would describe a photo on a social media site to a friend.

“Educational description” is also highly curated.  The describer makes specific and deliberate decisions about visual elements using the terminology of the curriculum to reveal information to students.  Consider how a teacher might describe an image on an exam to a student.

Effective Description

Despite the differences in all of these approaches, there are a few critical features that make description for accessibility effective:

  • Accuracy. Description must be reviewed for accuracy and appropriateness. Patrons and visitors must be informed about who is providing the description.
  • Language and Vocabulary. Must convey and communicate information. Describers must use vocabulary that effectively communicates the visual elements of the piece.
  • Appropriate choices. Describers must make decisions about how and what to communicate, and to find the right balance between information and distraction.

If accessibility for your community with vision loss is the primary goal, consider what procedures will ensure that the content provided meets those requirements.  This includes reviewing for accuracy, clarity, and efficacy.

Getting Started

When planning to implement description:

  1. Do your research and talk to your community. Identify the right approach to description for your visitors/audience and their experience.
  2. Define the intended outcome of the description. Decide whether the description is being incorporated as an accessibility accommodation, an educational piece, a social engagement tool, or all of the above to guide all of the decisions to follow.
  3. Inform your listeners. Always give listeners information to determine if they want to listen to the description and the opportunity to choose to filter or access the content that best meets their needs.

One size doesn’t fit all

There is not a single “right” way to provide description for all people in all circumstances. Whether your organization provides factual, interpretive, or non-curated social descriptions – or some combination –   the ultimate goal is to provide opportunities for meaningful and inclusive engagement for all members of your community.



Thank you to Deborah Lewis, President of Audio Description Solutions, and Joshua Miele at the Smith Kettlewell Eye Research Institute for participating in interviews during the development of this tip sheet.