What is Audio Description?

How Do People with Visual Impairments See a Play?

By Amelia Christ, MindsEye


How can you go see a play when you can’t literally see the play?

I’m speaking about the experience of people with visual impairments and the theater. What does it mean to love the stage as a blind person? Is it possible?

Of course dialogue, music, those are things that don’t change regardless of sight ability. Is that the answer then – find a music-driven or plot-focused show? Such an answer forces thousands of people, over 130,000 in Missouri and over 240,000 in Illinois according to the most recent U.S. Census, to abandon costumes, set pieces, and sight gags.


Wait, What Just Happened?

Even more fundamentally, imagine all the scenes that take place silently, relying on the body language of the actors.

Denny Huff, the president of the Missouri Council of the Blind, tells a story about catching a movie on TV one night. Much like theater, film is fundamentally visual. This particular movie – which Denny still doesn’t know the name of because the title was never spoken – ended in a shootout. As the gunfire faded, Denny listened intently, then, with swelling chorus, the movie cut to what he assumed to be the credits. It ended there.

To this day Denny still doesn’t know what happened in that final scene.


There’s a Better Option

This experience, alongside others, has convinced Denny of the importance of audio description for the arts. Audio description translates the stage, making it “hearable” for people with visual impairments.

The service is delivered through trained audio describers who communicate parts of the performance that would otherwise be missed. They narrate what the costumes look like; they paint a picture of the stage with their voices.

In other words they make sure no one misses a shootout.


How Does Audio Description Work?

Depending on the art form – film, painting, theater, etc. – audio description is delivered in different ways. It’s on Netflix right now, as well as on most DVDs. You can enable the audio description, or “descriptive audio” as it is sometimes called, just like you can enable a Spanish-language version or captions for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Museums throughout the world are working audio description into their exhibits. The Missouri History Museum offers guided “Access Tours” to make sure that important cultural artifacts are available for everyone.


Audio Description for the Stage

Audio description for the theater is offered live through headset technology. MindsEye Radio, St. Louis’ only audio information service for people with visual impairments, offers audio description services to St. Louis area theaters.

Area theaters make this service available to patrons, and patrons can access audio description free with a ticket purchase.


Mustard Seed Theatre Brings Audio Description to “All is Calm”

At every Saturday showing of All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, theater patrons can stop by the desk right before the theater entrance to pick up a headset. They will listen to a MindsEye audio describer narrate the visual elements of this popular show.

As Denny’s experience and the many other advocates for audio description attest, this service transforms the theater experience. It takes it from a potentially confusing and isolating evening, to one of full enjoyment.


Audio description is the future of inclusive productions where everyone can enjoy the show.