Many of us, in both our professional and personal lives, regularly produce content that’s inaccessible to blind and low vision people—artworks, exhibitions, websites, social media posts. A growing group of people involved in the disability justice movement are describing their own and one another’s content. Many of these people, including myself, are sighted but disabled in other ways, and are committed to advocating for one another’s access needs, collectively. Online, descriptions are often not narrated, but typed into captions or the “alt text” field: the latter is usually not visible to sighted users, but people who use devices called screen readers, which convert text on screen into audio, can access the descriptions.
Audio Description (AD) is the practice of describing visuals such as artworks, movies, and plays for blind and low vision audiences. In many large museums—often, those with access departments—educators and access workers often provide audio description during live tours devoted to the needs of the blind. They might also provide prerecorded descriptions on headsets, usually played on separate tracks or devices than those used for audio tours providing historical context. Audio description is also available on streaming services like Netflix as a track that one can turn on and off, and is provided by a live describer on headsets at accessible events and performances.
In hopes of learning more about description practices, I sat down for a phone conversation with Victor Cole, a Chicago-based freelance audio describer. In May 2020, we discussed his years of professional experience confronting the challenge of providing objective descriptions of artworks. He boils down his wisdom and experience to the straightforward slogan: “say what you see.”
Emily Watlington: I recognize your voice from the descriptions of the Mika Rottenberg videos that were on the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s website.
Victor Cole: Oh my god! That was a different challenge… I decided to not overthink those, and go with the basics: say what you see. Those videos had no dialogue, so I could talk the whole time: often, I have to squeeze my descriptions in between the dialogue, and it takes a lot of time to figure out the pacing. At the same time, when there’s a lot of talking in a video or play, hopefully the writing is good enough to tell most of the story.
Watlington: I loved the descriptions for the Rottenberg videos because they’re just so absurd! And hearing you describe what’s going on so matter-of-factly—“A seated, unshaven man sneezing a white and brown rabbit onto the table,” “A beach ball sized bubble float[s] through the air. The bubble is filled with white smoke”—only emphasized how strange they are.
Cole: It’s hard to not overthink something that’s so subjective, like those videos.
Watlington: What are other challenging things you’ve had to describe?
Cole: Initially, describing dance was really challenging. At first, I really burdened myself with trying to learn dance vocabulary. But I started realizing that most people who view dance don’t view it with the language in mind. So again, I went back to the basics: say what you see. There’s probably a technical way to say, “They’re up on their toes. They’re spinning to the right.” But that isn’t the best way to communicate it.
Watlington: I run into similar things when describing artworks reproduced in articles that I write: a word like chiaroscuro can be concise and evocative, but it’s also somewhat jargon-y. As is always the case with writing, I don’t want to assume too much about my audience’s art historical knowledge. One hopes it varies widely.
Cole: Whether with dance, photography, or painting, you have to deal with the obvious. How big is the picture? What’s the medium?
Watlington: What about capturing the mood or the feeling?
Cole: A good soundtrack helps a lot. So does inflection and pacing: if I say “Victor’s coming on stage. He’s moving to the right,” really fast, that conveys something different than if I were to say it slowly.
Watlington: That makes sense: you don’t have to overdetermine the mood by naming it. A fast pace could convey something chaotic, frantic, stressed… or something excited and joyful, depending on the context.
Watlington: So how did you get started doing audio description?
Cole: I started out as an actor. One day, I was in the green room studying my lines. One of my castmates said, “I see you practicing your reading. You could do that and also help somebody if you volunteer for the Blind Service Association: they could use readers all the time.” So I started volunteering a couple of hours every week. I worked with individuals and would describe whatever they asked: pornography, bills, homework.
One day I was at the theater… this was after I’d been volunteering for a little while. Someone came up to the to the office and said, “We’ve got a blind patron, but nobody’s with her to help her see the play.” The lady at the front desk replied, “We’ve got an actor back there… maybe he can help.” I didn’t even know audio description existed at that point. But they asked me to give it a try, and I said, “sure.” It seemed like a pretty easy gig: there was no pressure because I had no idea what I was doing, and the expectations were really low. Afterwards, I went to a couple of seminars and conferences on audio description. And I started getting jobs in theaters that I was connected to through acting.
Watlington: I imagine that your acting experiences makes you suited to convey some of the mood using inflection, like you mentioned.
Cole: I find myself almost looking for reasons not to talk. One of the bigger challenges is to stay out of the way. I used to say that I felt like a golf announcer, talking real quiet.
Watlington: So you describe performances live, not pre-recorded?
Cole: It’s interesting that you say that, because over the last several years, theaters have started asking me to record audio descriptions. My first thought was, are they trying to get rid of audio describers’ jobs? But then I started laughing, because I knew this wouldn’t work in theater. As an actor I know that if I drop a line, I’m going to go back sooner or later and try and pick that line up. You can try to sync up a play to a recording, but really, it’s different every night.
Usually, I sit in the booth with the tech people, or stand in the corner, and speak into a microphone. People listen along using a console: they’ve got ear buds that attach to a box that’s probably the size of a pack of cigarettes.
Watlington: So most of your training came from working one-on-one with blind and low vision people?
Cole: Yes. When I first started out, there was only one theater in Chicago that had audio description on a permanent basis. Now, blind and low vision people are more likely to ask for or expect it, and there are a couple of training classes. Someone was shadowing me recently, and I saw how differently some people work. It’s always helpful to prepare by familiarizing myself with the material ahead of time, though often describers are called in at the last minute. The actor in me likes to learn the script and attend the rehearsals.
Watlington: Are there some other rules, or maybe some tips, that you picked up along the way?
Cole: One time, I was describing a painting in a museum, talking about the nuances between the light blue and the dark blue as an indicator of nightfall. One lady says, “No, no, no. We don’t need the colors.” And this other lady says, “That’s your opinion! Let him say it.” When you’re describing for a group of blind and low vision people… some have been blind all their life, but others might have lost their sight in recent years. Some might still have partial vision. When I’m working one-on-one, I can tailor my descriptions. But working with a group, I try to find a medium, describing colors but also other aspects that might convey information: the size, what’s going on in the picture. It also depends on how much time you have: if you’re describing a video or a play and there’s lots of dialogue, you just aren’t going to get in much description.
Watlington: How do you deal with tight time constraints?
Cole: Usually when I describe films, it’s in a college classroom. I give students a headset and go somewhere out of the way, describing in real time. Sometimes, we spend time out of the classroom going over the film. We might play the film more than once: I always leave that up to them.
In theater, often, we have blind and low vision people come in early. Sometimes, they can touch some of the props. That can be a real help. But sometimes the crew doesn’t know what to do with us: they’re familiar with sign language interpreters and ramps, but not with audio description. Sometimes they jump in, but end up spoiling the play.
Watlington: It sounds like this is a different kind of behind-the-scenes than what they’re used to. Often larger museums will host touch tours for blind and low vision people, usually focusing on sculpture. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a touch collection, for example. In a recent show, “Recoding CripTech” At SOMArts in San Francisco, curators Vanessa Chang and Lindsey D. Felt included examples of materials that could be touched in cases where the works themselves could not, describing the form and the subject using audio. My blind friend will sometimes just ask if she can touch the art in a less formal setting, like an opening at a non-profit: many artists are fine with this, even though it’s deeply engrained in us that touching the art is taboo!
Cole: A lot of people just aren’t familiar with audio description. But I have my own equipment, so when they call me up, that’s okay. I’m prepared; I just bring it all in my metal suitcase. In a way, I’m there to let them off the hook. Having my own equipment also allows me to work with small organizations who really wouldn’t really be able to get it done, otherwise.
Watlington: It seems like audio description is often not always baked into the default, but is sometimes there if someone asks. And also, that the process itself isn’t visible in the way that sign language and ramps are.
Cole: A lot of theaters don’t have a dedicated space for me. That’s alright; I just stand in the corner. But I work with a stenographer’s mask, which a lot of people perceive as some sort of breathing apparatus. So sometimes people do see me, but they don’t necessarily understand what I’m doing.
Many people don’t realize that audio description really doesn’t take much. Sometimes, people who hire me are sort of scared of the blind. They’re thinking, “What do I do?!” So it’s a relief when I show up. It’s a lot better these days. But when I first started, it felt like I was doing this job because nobody else wanted to.
Watlington: I can remember the first time I tried incorporating descriptions into a talk I was giving: I was nervous that I was doing it wrong. But the most “wrong” description one can give is no description at all!
Cole: I’m glad to hear that more people are incorporating audio description into their own work. Sometimes I feel evangelical about it, because I really do believe that art is for everybody.
Recently, I got to a call to describe archival materials at the National Public Housing Museum: I grew up in public housing, and it was cool to have a conversation with people about that. Sometimes, I’ll record audio tours of exhibitions, and then who knows what they do with my voice. But with live tours, it’s more of a dialogue: people can ask about what they want to know. And over the years, I’ve built up relationships with blind and low vision people around town. There’s even one lady who likes to correct me: we know each other well enough and pick on each other. But this often means I’m not some robot telling them what I see: we are having a conversation, and people can ask about what they want to know.
Watlington: Are there other situations where you’ve had a strong connection to the work that makes it hard to describe objectively? Or maybe super graphic content?
Cole: There was this one describer in Chicago theaters who really bothered this group of ladies. If there was a woman he found attractive on stage, he would say, “She’s got big, voluptuous whatevers…” Basically, he would get too graphic. But there was nobody to put any restrictions on him.
I tend to describe an intimate scene more like, “He puts his hands down her on her stomach. He goes down to her pants.” That’s usually enough, along with whatever noise they’re making.
Watlington: In a lot of plays or movies, sex and violence are implied rather than shown anyway. It sounds like you’re trying to achieve the same effect with your descriptions.
Watlington: Is there anything you want people to know about what you do?
Cole: I want us to get to a point where blind and low vision people expect that they’ll be accommodated instead of having to ask, “Is there going to be an audio describer?” Everybody’s got to do their part. There are still too many people who don’t even know that audio description exists. We also need more Spanish-speaking or bilingual describers. But nobody wants to foot the bill for it!
Many who are new to audio description often find the process daunting. But Cole’s advice—“say what you see” —provides a manageable starting point, as well as insight into the process of working with professional access workers.
The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago is a leader in the field of museum accessibility. That’s also where I first heard Cole’s voice. For more about their exemplary access initiatives, see: https://mcachicago.org/Visit/Accessibility
Also, this article takes its title from a chapter of Georgina Kleege’s book More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art, a book to which the author is greatly indebted.
Film still from “I Am An Audio Describer”, a short video by Victor J. Cole, 2014
Image description: A film still from “I Am An Audio Describer”, a short video by Victor J. Cole, from 2014. The shot shows a dark-skinned adult male from the neck up, seen from head on and set against a plain white background. He wears a headset with a large microphone placed to the right of his open mouth. The image is somewhat obscured by lights reflected in the glass in front of his face.