Every day in our Museum, docents help visitors look closely at art. But how do they help someone with vision loss or blindness to look closely at those objects? Elizabeth Kahn, an NCMA docent, has worked with people who have vision loss. Museum Educator Diana Phillips asked her to tell about one of the methods she uses on her tours.
DP: What is audio description?
EK: Audio description is a technique designed to help people who are blind or have low vision to visualize the setting and action of stage performances, exhibits,and other arts and entertainment events. Audio description programs exist worldwide, and the prerecorded version known as “descriptive video” can be heard accompanying selected programs on television and specially formatted DVDs of films.
DP: How do you provide audio description for someone with vision loss who wants to look at a work of art?
EK: For the visual arts and exhibitions, specially trained describers begin by stating exactly “what is there” in a painting, sculpture installation, or display. The information is given in a very precise and organized way.
DP: How is that information different from what you might find on a gallery label?
EK: Audio description does not interpret the meaning of a work of art; nor does it give information about historical background, the artist’s life, or symbolism.
DP: So it just focuses on what is physically present?
EK: Yes, and for people who are blind, this description levels the playing field for a discussion of the meaning of the image. For people who have low vision, the description defines aspects of the image that may be unclear.
DP: Is there a difference between what a listener might hear in an audio description and what they might hear on an audio guide or cell phone tour?
EK: An audio guide program usually assumes that the listener sees the image discussed. On the other hand, audio description assumes that the listener cannot see the image or sees it imperfectly. If both were available, I would recommend that a visitor who has impaired vision listen to the audio description first, followed by the audio guide discussion.
Listen to Elizabeth Kahn’s audio description of the Jacob Lawrence painting Forward:
You can also hear a reading of the gallery label, which offers more interpretive information about the work of art: