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Audio description and accessibility

For those who are blind or visually impaired, consuming and enjoying digital media can be a significant challenge, instead of a relaxing pastime.

With the increased use of subtitles helping to make content more accessible for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, what can be done to better accommodate those with sight problems? Well, audio description (AD) provides an ideal solution.

With 250 people in the UK beginning to lose their vision every day, and millions living with sight loss severe enough to have a significant impact on their daily lives, ensuring that digital content is accessible for all has become more important than ever.

So, what is audio description, and what are the benefits of it? And, following the 2019 change in accessible media law, how can businesses use AD to benefit their customers?

What is audio description?

Put simply, audio description gives context to visual information for partially sighted and blind consumers.

It is an additional commentary that explains what’s happening on screen, including body language, expressions, and movements. Essentially, audio description makes the content clear solely through sound, without having to rely on visuals.  

This verbal depiction of key visual elements is so important for those with sight loss, as it allows them to enhance their overall entertainment experience, highlighting a vital step towards making digital media accessible for all.

Why AD is important

Of course, the main focus of audio description is to accommodate for as wide an audience as possible. With around one in 30 people in the UK suffering with sight loss, to overlook this demographic would be to cut off and alienate a large potential audience.

Ultimately, everyone deserves to enjoy digital media, and adding an AD track to content makes this possible for those with sight loss.

It’s for this reason that the 2017 Digital Economy Act was introduced. The law aims to make video content more accessible for those with sight loss, requiring Video on Demand providers to add some level of audio description to their content. Since the introduction of this law, the number of audio-described shows on catch-up services has begun to slowly increase.

But it’s not just blind and short-sighted audiences who can reap the benefits of audio description. By adding an AD track to a film or TV show, even more flexibility is provided to the audience. It allows viewers to consume video content in an eyes-free environment, like whilst cooking or driving, much like the way we enjoy audiobooks and podcasts.

Also, we’ve all heard people talk about visual or aural learning, and how these different techniques work best for different people. So, if you’re the type of person who learns better through hearing specific information, instead of seeing it, audio description could be helpful in retaining new information in an educational setting.

As well as this, if you’re watching a movie that has a bit of a complicated storyline, or too many characters to keep track of, turning on the audio description narration could help you make sense of the action you’re seeing on-screen.

So, even though the main purpose of audio description is to accommodate audiences with sight loss, the benefits can actually be felt by a whole range of viewers. This makes the service a worthwhile investment if widening your audience reach is a top priority (which it should be!).

2019 change in accessible media law

In recent years, despite the clear benefits of audio description and the introduction of movements like the Digital Economy Act, there has still been increasing demand for wider accessibility to digital media.

With internet use increasing, including among disabled people, the rate at which digital accessibility was improving was deemed unsatisfactory and “troubling”. As the inventor of the World Wide Web himself, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, put it: “the power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone, regardless of disability, is an essential aspect”.

So, to combat this, further law changes were brought in in 2019, bringing with them the potential to remake the digital accessibility landscape. The new regulations require organisations to ensure their websites, documents, and mobile apps are accessible to all; to comply with digital accessibility standards; and to publish an accessibility statement.

These regulations are also the first to explicitly identify the provision of accessible digital services and alternative formats as ‘reasonable adjustments’ under the Equality Act of 2010.

The introduction of these changes also signify a step towards making all digital media accessible, not just video content. The laws explicitly reference the need for websites, apps, and audio content to also be optimised for disabled users.

Although these changes don’t all relate to audio description, they highlight a vital need for businesses to address the accessibility of their media overall, instead of just focusing on video content. It’s important to remember that disabilities can include visual impairments, auditory impairments, motoric disabilities, and cognitive disabilities, each with their own potential issues when accessing digital media.

The inclusion of disabled people into all aspects of daily life is widely accepted as a basic human right, and consuming and enjoying digital content should be no different. Let’s not forget that designing media content that’s accessible has a range of advantages that can also benefit the wider audience, as well as those with specific needs.

So, how can businesses use audio description to their advantage and utilise the benefits?

Businesses and audio description

As I mentioned, with the conversation around different types of disabilities and what they each mean for accessibility opening up, now is an ideal time for businesses to address their digital media as a whole.

Instead of accessibility being seen as a simple tick-box exercise, where subtitles or an audio description track get added to the newest commercial, it actually presents the opportunity for businesses to really evaluate how users access and interact with their content.

Thinking ahead in terms of how different groups, including the disabled, will interact with your content, allows you to focus on user experience and really maximise the effect your content can have.

For example, considering how an AD track can be added to your new video before you start making it will essentially mean the final product provides a better user experience. Consider including appropriately-placed pauses in the action for the AD track to catch up, instead of adding the track as an afterthought, potentially leaving listeners stranded and disengaged from your content.

Putting yourself in the position of the audience can really help you begin to understand how they engage with your content. Try watching your video with your eyes closed and, if you can’t keep up with the audio description and what’s going on, then chances are your audience won’t either.

How can we help?

Ultimately, these changes in accessible media laws can only be a good thing. Not only does audio description have the potential to benefit all kinds of viewers, primarily the disabled, but it also gives businesses the opportunity to overhaul their user experience.

By taking a step back and really considering how different demographics will consume this content, instead of viewing accessibility as simply ticking a box, you will not only make your content more accessible, but also make the digital world of entertainment more equal.

Here at Matinée Multilingual, we have over thirty years’ experience of providing audio description services, helping businesses to improve their accessibility one step at a time. However you decide to reassess your user experience, whether that be through audio description, or subtitles, our expert and professional team are ready to help.

Why not get in touch with us today and find out how we can help you?

Call us on +44 (0) 118 958 4934

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