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Live Audio Description: What's Really Going On

I feel very fortunate to have the luxury of being an audio description snob. Now, if a movie or TV show doesn’t offer AD, I think three times about whether I want to bother with it. But audio description isn’t just for the movie theater or TV anymore. Increasingly, it’s becoming possible for blind and visually impaired people do access description for a wider range of cultural experiences like stage productions, art and museum exhibits, and sporting events. Recently, I had the chance to experience some live audio description that expanded my perception of my home city.

I like living in a city, especially one as diverse as Toronto. That said, I think of my affection mostly in practical terms: where can I go? What can I do? Who can I meet? I think more in terms of destination than process. To be frank, getting there is often none of the fun. As a blind person, cities offer invaluable freedom like transit and services, but are also constantly writhing ant hills of wet floor signs, sidewalk sandwich boards, cars idling in the crosswalk, or enormous public spaces to be lost in. Exposure to some strategic live audio description helped me to broaden my perspective on where I live.

Jane’s Walks are an annual phenomenon in which volunteers with an interest in a particular part of the city, lead a guided walk to introduce others to it. The walks are done in the spirit of making and sharing a “livable city,” and this year there was a unique addition. J.J. Hunt, a professional audio describer, lead a described walk through part of Toronto. The focus of the walk was to offer verbal descriptions of the urban landscape that are normally inaccessible to blind or visually impaired Torontonians. An ambitious task? You bet!

The challenge was to figure out how to distill so much into two hours. The result was a fascinating combination of the lofty and the mundane. The description along the route ranged through architecture and its effects, infrastructure such as how streetcars and their power lines look, graphiti on parking meters, the things people do in parks, and what mail boxes look like.

I don’t often think about the emotional effects, intentional or not, of some of the visual aspects of city life. I was struck when J.J. described Union Station as “Built to impress.” Living in Toronto, unless you own a car or live under a rock, Union Station is somewhere you go with some frequency; it’s a hub for several types of transit. As a blind person, my experience of Union Station is as a vast space with useful and necessary fixtures, that’s varying degrees of a thorn in my side depending on the day. Of course blind people who use the station regularly can navigate it seamlessly, when it’s not under construction, but as an occasional visitor, it’s represented in my urban landscape as a troublesome expanse: a blob of irritation. J.J. described something very different, large columns, coloured ornamental flooring, vast windows, an imposing affect….

In a broader way, there are buildings I never have occasion to go to at all, hotels, bank headquarters…. These structures are essentially voids for me: spaces I pass as I make my way down crowded sidewalks to get where I’m going. Now, I have some sense of how diverse or unique buildings can be made, by the use of shape, angle or colour.

And then there are the aspects of the visual landscape that are changing. J.J. explained how mail boxes and electrical boxes aren’t monochromal anymore, but have become sanctioned canvases for citizen generated pop-art. An new building replaces an old one, the new model of streetcar is beginning to appear, a park is being stripped and relandscaped.

And there’s an entire layer of detail so mundane that sighted people perhaps rarely even notice it, infrastructure that’s part of a street scape if you’re looking at it. I learned that the power wire above the streetcar tracks has cross wires attached to poles in order to support it. Along most kerb sides and flush with street level, there’s a ribbon of red brick. Originally placed there for drainage reasons, it’s become so iconic to the city that it’s now used on new streets simply for the aesthetic. Public benches along sidewalks are black with wooden slats.

And sitting on those benches? One dimension of city life most urban dwellers value is people watching. J.J. acknowledged that describing this aspect of urban life is challenging, as it’s manifestly impolite to do it in the hearing of the person you’re describing, and busy streets make it hard to do discreetly. We did get to hear about the passenger in a passing car clutching a pack of cigarettes and a bouquet of flowers, and the bongo player in a hat and dark glasses. In fact, I’d take an entire described walk just giving the “people watching” lowdown.

Accessibility absolutely means things like wheelchair ramps and audio traffic signals, but this walk made part of my city accessible to me in a way it hadn’t been before. I know my home city a bit better than I did, and I feel like I have more access to it because of initiatives like this. The more often museums or cultural facilities get asked about whether they offer AD, the more likely they are to include it as a routine part of what they offer the public in the future.


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