Industries in Depth

Lost in translation: Why audio description must go onto the accessibility agenda

close-up of people looking at their phones signifying more content moving to social media and more need for widely available audio description

There are different ways of seeing. Image: Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash

Sumaira Latif
Leader, Company Accessibility, Procter & Gamble
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  • Blind and visually impaired people use audio description to consume TV and video content.
  • Companies need to consider how to effectively communicate their message to people who may not be able to view the full picture.
  • Multiple players need to harness the opportunity and make wide-reaching audio description available.

Imagine you’re in a room with a group of colleagues, or a group of friends or family, and everyone is laughing, but you don’t get the joke. Sound familiar? That experience is something that blind and visually impaired people are faced with every single day. That’s because when they watch regular TV, the visual context is omitted, resulting in content being lost in translation.

For me, the power of audio description in advertising came to light when I found myself in that very situation. As part of my role at P&G, I was watching a new advert for homecare brand, Flash with a group of colleagues. Everyone in the room kept laughing when it started playing, but all I could hear was the song ‘Flash’ by Queen. What I didn’t know was that it was a dog singing the song, and that the creativity and humour embedded throughout the advert was intended to make consumers smile.

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Blind and visually impaired people use audio description to consume TV and video content. It is something that we have been doing even more since national lockdowns have restricted our movement.

Audio description is a separate audio track which includes a description of the visual aspects of a video to enable a blind person to ‘see’ the information being displayed. It’s visually identical to the advert a sighted person would view – the difference lies in the track that is played behind it, with the original audio dipped while the narrator describes the action which can’t be communicated by sounds and speech. In the context of our Flash advert, the narration comprises setting the scene and introducing the characters, such as the dog, a woman, a clean kitchen and a muddy floor.

Image: World Health Organization

Over the years, I’ve fallen in love with watching films – but I only watch those with audio description, because the meaning can often be lost without this. Yet despite figures from the World Health Organization revealing that as many as two billion people worldwide have some form of sight loss, few countries have made the jump to include audio description across their advertising and entertainment.

Blind and visually impaired people use audio description to consume TV and video content. It is something that we have been doing even more since national lockdowns have restricted our movement.

Sumaira Latif Leader, Company Accessibility, Procter & Gamble

While P&G has introduced audio description across the majority of its adverts in the UK, US and Spain – opening them up to some 30 million blind or visually impaired people – sadly, this still leaves millions of people without the same access to video content.

I don’t believe that people are unwilling to make this change. But I do believe that there is a knowledge gap between those who understand the impact of audio description and those who don’t. As companies increasingly seek to market their products outside of traditional advertising via social media, the importance of effectively communicating the message to people who may not be able to view the full picture will win with consumers.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to close the disability inclusion gap?

There is no single company, individual or group that can make this simple inclusion requirement a reality; rather, there are multiple players who all need to harness the opportunity and make it possible. It requires:

  • TV and device manufacturers to provide the ability to stream audio-described content.
  • Broadcasters to create the workflows to allow the delivery of mainstream and audio described tracks side by side.
  • Content producers and advertisers to bake in accessibility from the outset.
  • Leaders to implement legislation that will enable equal access to all content by calling on the major players to distribute inclusive video.

We so often find that when we adapt our products to become more ergonomic and accessible, they end up being improved for everyone.

Sumaira Latif Leader, Company Accessibility, Procter & Gamble

But everyone must play their part. Only then will the inclusion of blind and visually impaired people in society be supported, and only then will people be able to not only watch and enjoy content – but to share those experiences with their friends, family and colleagues.

It will enable brands to establish themselves in the minds of all customers by making advertising better for everyone; indeed, we so often find that when we adapt our products to become more ergonomic and accessible, they end up being improved for everyone. Taken together, this stands to unlock immense business-building potential. And, as for those organizations who don't offer a level playing field? I fear they will lose out.

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