Audio description on the web

  • Author: Robert Pearson
  • Date: 11 Apr 2013

Putting audio description of multimedia content on the web has always been challenging.

Audio description is not making its transition to the web as successfully as closed captioning was able to: whether through the lack of the availability of a fully accessible media player, through unsupported content types such as Flash on an Apple device or through a general reluctance to include it as a required regulation due to a lack of understanding of its requirements.

Certainly the successful throughput of a separate audio description track timed in sequence with video and closed captioning content is not straightforward. Few media players in the world have been able to successfully achieve this and those have failed to be utilised and implemented for mainstream consumption. In most instances those players have historically been Flash-based.

Therefore, even if successful in implementing an audio description track, not being able to play back that content on Apple devices may be excluding an audience who typically gravitates towards these devices due to their inherent accessibility features. Furthermore, when not taking the non-visual perspective on the issue, the requirement to regulate the implementation of audio description may even be ignored.

Such has been case here in Ontario, Canada where our provincial accessibility regulations have stated a requirement to become WCAG 2.0 compliant to Level AA guidelines on a gradual timeline, with a few exceptions. One of those exceptions is audio description. Why one may ask? For many of reasons outlined above, including that a clear direction on how to implement audio description successfully cannot be provided.

Therefore, those requiring audio description are left looking forward to what future technologies may be available. HTML 5 will bring about sweeping changes to the manner in which the Internet is constructed. One of those will be in a vast simplification of the coding required in order to successfully implement audio description on the web. It will be a move away from inconsistent media players, unsupported technologies and a lack of understanding of the non-visual perspective.

HTML 5 will offer a standardised way to consume online multimedia content with whatever accessibility requirements a user may need. However, we aren't there yet. Currently no browsers support the code required for the vast simplification of implementing audio description on the web.

In time, it will come through as the internet evolves to HTML 5 over the course of many years. As it does, those who understand and possess the non-visual perspective on this will at long last be granted the ability to consume the content they require. In the meantime, patience with what is available is the key with knowledge that our digital world continues to ever so gradually work towards the point of full inclusion.

What are your thoughts on how audio description is (or isn't) being included in web video content? Let us know in the comments section below!

This is the third article in a series on audio description by Robert Pearson, Director of Accessible Digital Media at Accessible Media Inc. (AMI), based in Toronto, Canada. He is also Chair of the Canadian broadcasting industry's Described Video Best Practices (DVBP) Working Group, striving towards the establishment of industry best practices in the area of audio description, known as described video in Canada.