'Audio Description' renders art accessible to the visually impaired

Marwa Morgan, Thursday 26 Mar 2015

For the first time in Egypt, the new technique can accompany visual components of art in order to offer blind people a new experience

Audio Description
Professor Elena Di Giovanni explains potential applications of Audio Description in the Egyptian Cultural Scene (Photo: Courtesy of Masreya Media)

“Simba walks out of the den with his parents. His mother caresses his back as they get closer to the tip of the mountain.”

The quote is one of several samples for the potential application of the audio description technique which the Italian professor Elena Di Giovanni, lecturer at University of Macerata, discussed during her presentation on Monday 23 March, as a part of her work with the Egyptian company, Masreya Media.

Preceded by a short performance by the Al-Nour Wal Amal Chamber Orchestra- an Egyptian orchestra consisting of blind and visually impaired girls- a seminar took place in the Higher Council of Culture (Cairo Opera grounds), explaining how audio description could make educational and cultural material accessible to visually impaired people, as well as the elderly.

Arriving to Egypt for the first time, the technique offers a new experience to more than two million Egyptians who suffer from a degree of visual impairment or are completely blind, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Audio description transforms visual elements in film, theatre, exhibitions, opera and other fields, into a vivid narration, Di Giovanni said. Using “eye-tracking”, which involves following the audiences eyes to determine the points of their visual interest, researchers specify the most important visual elements that need to be verbalised.

Description includes any visual element that could provide information to the viewer, such as logos or film credits that appear on a cinema screen. Di Giovanni explained that pauses, however, are very important in order to not mask noises in the film or performance.

“The description shouldn’t be too long or too short. It needs to be what we call juste milieu [middle way],” she explained.

The technique has been already successfully applied in several places around the globe.

Countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States have issued legislations that obligate local media channels to broadcast a part of their program using audio description. In the United Kingdom, for example, audio description accompanies 600 TV shows, as well as films screened in 400 cinemas, according to the Royal National Institute for Blind people.

In addition to legislation, governments have made efforts to promote training in the field of audio description, and provide access to audio described material. The European Union has funded several projects, including Ad Lab Project, which was awarded over 3 million Euros to promote the new technique.

According to Di Giovanni, countries like Italy and Argentina, which have a lot in common with Egypt, were able to achieve much progress too.

“Italy can be compared to Egypt as it only started a few years ago,” she said.

Such “recognition on a high level” is what Di Giovanni considers the main factor of success for audio description. The technique’s success also depends on private companies conducting research and producing audio described material.

“Egypt has a good chance,” she said, referring to potential cooperation with the Egyptian Ministry of Culture.


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