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Important Audio Description Tips: Techniques to Make Visuals Heard

People may only hear your meeting and video’s visuals

1/23/2023 3:00:00 PM

Audio waveform with text underneath: Audio Description.

By Jennie Delisi, Accessibility Analyst

Imagine you are participating in a meeting. Half of the participants are together in a room. You are one of the online participants. The camera shows the speaker and the presentation slides. Suddenly, everyone in the room laughs, but nothing funny is onscreen. You reread the slide, but don’t get the joke. What happened?

We often communicate with a blend of audio and visual information. But there are times when only one of these communication channels are available. When communicating visual information we can take steps to ensure all of our audience receives the important information, even if they cannot see or understand the visual content. For videos this includes:

  • Important graphics.
  • Onscreen text.
  • Visuals that advance the plot.
  • Visual jokes.

People Who Use Audio Description

Many people use audio description. This includes:

  • People who are blind or have vision limitations (also known as “low vision”).
  • People who are deafblind. 
  • Some people with cognitive disabilities find information about what is onscreen helpful to support understanding. They may not know which visuals onscreen are important, or what some of them mean.

Types of Audio Description with Examples

There are different approaches to audio description. Select the approach that best fits your content, project requirements, and video hosting location and player.

Audio description included in the script

Some people plan their script or talking points to include descriptions of visuals onscreen. This can be a cost-effective way to include audio description. I use images in my presentations to reinforce learning concepts. I build the description of the visuals into my talking points.

I gave a presentation about improving communication about accessibility. The session material focused on conversation partners – the people we speak with as part of our jobs. Some of our conversation partners are people learning new digital accessibility skills.

Woman writing on sticky notes, on a board.

For this image I included the following sentences with my talking points: 

“When they go to do that action, do they know what to do? Again, this is their goal. This person is writing information onto sticky notes on a wall. The items she knows how to do will feel comfortable to her. She will be more likely to tackle those items first.”

I included this audio description in the live presentation, and it is also in the recording. This did not require any post-production work.

The other benefit of this approach is that there is only one version of the video for everyone to review. The challenges with this approach can be:

  • Complex visuals may take more time to explain and may not benefit all viewers.
  • Some audio description may be unintentionally missed if you record in one take.

Extended audio description

Extended audio description uses a version of a video made with more time to include descriptions. Production teams use this when there is not enough time in the natural audio breaks to include the descriptions. A narrator’s voice interrupts during audio breaks to describe what is happening onscreen.

Some videos have a separate audio track for the audio descriptions. This requires an audio description capable video player. Example: Web Accessibility Initiative’s video “Keyboard Compatibility.” The button beneath the player allows you to “Enable Audio Description.”

There are times when having a separate audio track for audio description is not possible. In these cases, production teams may choose to produce two versions of the same video. One version with extended audio description, the other without. 

The UK Channel 4 created 2 versions of their Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games Trailer. Warning: this video contains some images of blood and other fluids. Also, at the time of publication of this article, the automated captions mistakenly identify bocce balls as “botchable” and COVID as “covert.”

Similarly, the Office of Accessibility created 2 versions of the Accessibility Matters video:

Screenshot of YouTube video. Captions include audio description.
Image caption: The captions and audio in the Accessibility Matters video include the audio description. Here they describe the volume slider in the foreground, the image of the woman in the background, and the action the slider is taking (decreasing until muted).

The benefit of this approach is that the audio description can have an adequate amount of time to ensure visuals are well described. Drawbacks to this approach include:

  • Need to produce two versions of the video.
  • Hosting and publicizing two versions of the video; or having a video player capable of playing the audio description track.
  • Additional cost.

Standard audio description

Standard audio description is also done in post-production. It involves fitting audio description into the natural audio breaks. As with extended audio description, the narrator’s voice interrupts the audio breaks to describe what is happening onscreen. Standard audio description only uses the time available during natural audio breaks – no additional time is added for them.

The benefit of this approach is that the video is the same length to review as the version without audio description. Drawbacks to this approach include:

  • Need to produce two versions of the video, or at least record a separate audio description track.
  • Hosting and publicizing two versions of the video; or having a video player capable of playing the audio description track.
  • Additional cost.


Will you be making a live or recorded video? Most project team members will need a basic understanding of audio description.

Identify visual content without audio

Think about anything you will visually present and is important. Consider this scenario: if someone is on the phone with me, and can hear the audio, but not see the screen. What would I be sure to tell them is happening? 

Just like alternative text, you do not want to describe everything. 


  • What will happen onscreen during the live event, or in a recording. 
  • What might someone want to know happened onscreen?

Build audio descriptions into scripts

Planning a presentation? Making a video? You can build into your talking points or scripts the audio description of the key visuals. Planning is a key element to success! It:

  • Reduces the post-recording cost.
  • Sometimes eliminates the need for a video player that is audio description capable.
  • Improves the quality of the audio descriptions.

As you plan your video’s visuals, also plan your audio description. Be sure to include:

  • Important information shared in a chart. 
  • The keyboard shortcut as well as the location onscreen if the video shows how to find something on your website. This helps people who use screen readers or don’t use a mouse.
  • Text that appears onscreen. Example: a person’s name and title that displays at the bottom of the screen.

Decide how to handle content that you cannot write into the script

You may decide that some information needs audio description, from a distinct narrator. Considerations include:

  • Where is the video hosted? 
  • Do you have a choice of video players?
  • How will you share the different versions of the video so people needing the audio description version will find it?

Next, write the audio descriptions. If they need to fit within the natural audio breaks (included in the main audio track), plan these moments into your video without competing audio.

Assign a narrator just for the audio descriptions. Having a distinct voice helps listeners distinguish the audio description from the other audio elements, like dialogue.

Record your video, load the audio description track or version, test

Quality checks of audio description include:

  • Sound quality.
  • Validating that all required audio description is present.
  • Ensuring that if there is an audio description track or audio described version that it is present, and works.

Keep Learning

Audio description, like alt text, takes skill and practice. Until you feel confident, you may want to work with a vendor who has training and experience. But keep learning! Some suggestions include:

Like all digital accessibility skills, regular practice will help you ensure more people will benefit from your visuals and videos.

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