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Background of the Description Key

Adapted from the original “Background of The Description Key,” written in 2008 by Kay Alicyn Ferrell and Mary Ann Siller, American Foundation for the Blind.


What induces a child to learn but his delight in knowing?
–Helen Keller, 1930


It has long been advocated that educational media should contain descriptions of visual content suitable for persons who are blind or visually impaired. This is particularly important in current day classrooms, which increasingly rely on multimedia instructional materials. These materials often present serious restrictions in terms of access to the general education curriculum.

Description is the verbal depiction of key visual elements in a television program, video, DVD, or other multimedia presentation. Inserted into natural pauses in the program’s soundtrack, description provides information that otherwise would remain inaccessible to someone who is blind or visually impaired without the assistance of a sighted person. It is similar to captioning in that both are important tools for equal access to educational media for people with disabilities. While captioning has enjoyed almost five decades of development and successful implementation, video or media description is still relatively new to the educational environment.

The Description Key began as recommendations, suggestions, and best practices culled from an extensive literature search and meta-analysis [PDF] in 2006. An expert panel in media description and education for children with visual impairments was assembled to help evaluate media description strategies for educational material. The list of recommended practices was then subjected to a consensus review process by these leading experts, resulting in a reduction from 204 to 63 critical indicators. This work was opened to an extensive public review in the spring of 2008 that invited comments and rankings of each indicator’s importance. The expert panel met a final time in July 2008 to review these public comments, the rankings, and to discuss each indicator before adopting the final document presented here.

History of Description

As far back as 1964, advocates for accessibility, such as Chet Avery, a U.S. Department of Education official, and, in the 1970s, Gregory Frazier, a professor and founder of AudioVision, envisioned the type of equal access that description could provide to people who are blind or visually impaired. Description also has roots in radio reading services for the blind, which began in Minnesota in 1969. Dr. Margaret Pfanstiehl, founder of The Metropolitan Washington Ear, the radio reading service of Washington, D.C., is credited with the invention of the first ongoing audio description service in 1981. Designed primarily for adults with visual impairment attending theater productions, audio description has expanded into other cultural venues as well. In the late 1980s, WGBH, Boston’s public broadcasting station, received training from Dr. Pfanstiehl and, along with the Narrative Television Network, brought the description service to television audiences. In 1997 WGBH introduced description in movie theaters for regularly scheduled screenings. (For more on the history of description, read DCMP’s Description Time Line Highlights [PDF].)

Description services are now routinely offered by several providers at movies, museums, and dance productions, as well as on television, to viewers with visual impairments. Known by several terms—“audio description,” “video description,” “descriptive video information,” “Descriptive Video Service™” and "DVS™," “narrative description,” and/or “descriptive video”—description is typically provided through a secondary audio channel or the Secondary Audio Programming (SAP) channel for analog television and ancillary audio services for DTV.

Description has great appeal to adults with visual impairments, many of whom have cited the following benefits: (a) increased knowledge about the visual world, (b) greater understanding of televised materials, (c) independence and elimination of reliance on sighted companion viewers, (d) social connection, (e) equality with sighted individuals, (f) enjoyment, and (g) greater comfort in discussing television programs with sighted acquaintances (Fels, Udo, Ting, & Diamond, 2006; Packer, 2005; Schmeidler & Kirchner, 2001). Audio description is used both for the enriching, aesthetic experience of the content of a production as well as for cultural inclusion (Ellis, 1991).

In 2000, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a rule requiring major television and cable networks in large markets to provide a minimum number of hours weekly of described television, noting that:

up to 12 million persons with a vision difficulty that cannot be corrected with ordinary glasses or contact lenses…have visual disabilities…Video description could also benefit secondary audiences of up to one and a half million children between the ages of 6 and 14 with learning disabilities by capturing their attention and enhancing their information processing skills. (July 21, 2000).

In 2002 shortly after the proposed rule took effect, it was struck down by the United States Court of Appeals, which found that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 did not authorize the FCC to adopt regulations requiring description of television content.

Many television networks, most notably PBS, CBS, TCM, and FOX offer some televised description, but several others have stopped providing description services in the absence of any federal requirement to do so. On December 21, 2007 the U.S. House of Representatives released a draft bill, the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which authorizes the previous proposed regulations and expands them to digital television technologies. This Act awaits Congressional action.

As the use of digital media has increased exponentially in classrooms across America, their accessibility to students with visual impairment has remained elusive. Classrooms still rely on simultaneous human descriptions of real-time visual materials, even though the technology exists to make these educational materials accessible to students with visual impairment. The Office of Special Education Programs in the U.S. Department of Education took a giant step forward by awarding a cooperative agreement to NAD in 2006 (and subsequent renewal in 2011) for:

the selection, acquisition, closed captioning, video description, and distribution of free educational media through such mechanisms as a loan service. The educational media are to be used in classroom settings by students with hearing or vision impairments and teachers and paraprofessionals who are directly involved in elementary or secondary classroom activities for these students. This priority would ensure that students who have hearing or vision impairments will benefit from the same educational media used to enrich the educational experiences of students who do not have hearing or vision impairments (71 Federal Register 26353 (2006); emphasis added).

Description makes real the promise of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: The opportunity to help students with visual impairments attain the same access to today’s curricular materials that their sighted classmates take for granted. DCMP is a milestone for the education of students with visual impairment.

Describing for Children

Description for adults with vision loss has more than 25 years of history and experience behind it. Unfortunately, there is little research to explain how description mediates cognitive structures developed through other sensory modalities or how best to script the description to construct effective and efficient representations that build a relevant conceptual model for either adults or children (Piety, 2003, 2004). The representation of visual information made possible by description is:

only one source of information for an individual who is actively developing a personal representation of the production in his or her own mind…The consumer’s cognitive process can be viewed as an active process in which representations of…description, dialogue and other auditory cues, previous information established in the production, world knowledge, and inferences are continuously integrated to build and rebuild a representation of the scenes that are visually realized on the screen (Piety, 2004, p. 466).

AFB believes that description for children is fundamentally different than description for adults, primarily because concept development is still in process. With adults, one can assume a certain level of exposure, whether it originates in literature or in other cultural experiences. The same cannot be said for children with vision loss, whose experiences are limited by the visual impairment and time itself. As Ferrell (1997) explained,

Children with blindness and visual impairment learn differently, for no other reason than that in most cases they cannot rely on their vision to obtain information. The information that they obtain through their other senses is inconsistent (things do not always make noise or produce an odor), fragmented (comes in bits and pieces), and passive (not under the child’s control). It takes practice, training, and time to sort all this out (p. v).

This different learning style has implications for educational description, because it affects how children with vision loss obtain information, form concepts, and categorize those concepts for later use. For example, children with visual impairment generally share the following learning principles, which are not characteristic of children without disabilities:

Parts to Wholes

Children with visual impairment learn inductively rather than deductively. Where a typical child generally looks at the whole object and then examines the individual parts, the child with visual impairment must rely on other sensory modalities to examine the same object, regardless of whether it’s an animal, a toy, or a person. The nature of the tactile sense, however, is such that the child can only touch an area as large as his or her hand at any one point in time, and then must put together those multiple tactile experiences to get a sense of the whole object. It’s a bit like putting together a puzzle without knowing what the end product looks like. Touch becomes the most stable sensory input, as long as the object is within reach, but it is still fragmented from the child's point of view. Other sensory inputs, such as smell or taste, are not always available. Thus, it takes a little longer to build concepts and then to categorize or group those concepts (e.g., large/small, dogs/cows, fruits/vegetables) when one cannot instantaneously determine the similarities and differences among the various objects one encounters on a daily basis.

Deliberate vs. Incidental

Unlike children with typical vision, children with visual impairment usually will not benefit from incidental learning—the type of learning that occurs unintentionally, mostly without even trying—to the same extent as a sighted child because most of this type of learning is visually mediated. With vision loss, the opportunities to learn by watching someone else perform a skill or by observing social customs are either limited or missing altogether. In the absence of such incidental opportunities, experiences cannot be taken for granted and must be deliberately taught. This holds true for everything from associations (knowing that pants or slacks are the same piece of clothing as jeans) to motor actions (learning how to jump, skip, or swim when one cannot observe the totality of movement).

Limited Opportunities for Imitation and Practice

Children often learn skills by watching others perform them, trying it themselves, and practicing the behavior repeatedly until they obtain the desired result. They get feedback from watching themselves perform the skill and are motivated to repeat it until they get it right. Children with visual impairment do this, too, but they rely on other types of sensory feedback that do not provide the same type of information. First, they may not be able to imitate the skill if they cannot see the skill being performed by others. Second, even if deliberately taught the skill, they may not be able to self-monitor their practice because the sensory feedback they receive is inconsistent or fragmented. Third, repetition is key to brain-based learning, and if children cannot find opportunities for practice, and if the practice they do receive produces inconsistent results, children with vision loss may not be able to integrate the skill in the same manner that typical children do.

For purposes of description, producers should be aware that this learning style means that two children with the exact same visual diagnosis, age, and vision loss may have entirely different experiences in terms of concept development. Description, therefore, will create different understandings for different children (Peli, Fine, & Lablanca, 1996).

Furthermore, educational materials assume the acquisition of concepts and experiences that are part of the state-mandated curriculum. But children with visual impairment, because they do not experience the curriculum in the same manner that typical children do, often miss many of these concepts because they are outside of their sensory experience. While one generally wants to use description that relates to what children have personally experienced in their sensory modality, one cannot be sure that every child has had the same experience. Curriculum content set at a specific or range of grade levels may be appropriate for typical children, upon whom the content has been developed and tested, but children with vision loss have rarely been included in development and field testing. It is not known whether the grade levels assigned to content are appropriate for children with visual impairment. It is known that norms are appropriate for some children with visual loss, but that additional disabilities pose risks to development (Ferrell, 1996). Description writers have no control over who is listening to the description, and they need to prepare for multiple levels of understanding.

Age of the intended audience also plays a role in description. Young children generally have short attention spans and may find it difficult to listen to and absorb large amounts of verbal information (RNIB, 2006). On the other hand, middle and high school students may prefer more description, depending on the technical nature of the content and the amount of new vocabulary that is introduced. “Individuals seek different levels of detail and content from descriptions and these differences are most noticeable with age and degree of visual impairment” (OFCOM, 2000).

Description writers are therefore cautioned to:

Make no assumptions about what children know or do not know—

Children with vision loss will bring a range of experiences to a particular production.

Adopt a nonvisual frame of reference—

Think about the production from the point of view of the child with vision loss. What seems obvious to a sighted child may be totally obscured to a child with vision loss.

Consider that the potential audience may be comprised of several grade levels—

Content classified at one grade level (or a range of grade levels) may actually be appropriate for a broader range of comprehension levels, depending on the background and age of the children viewing a production at any point in time.

Structure the description to facilitate children’s learning—

Precisely because of the way children with visual impairments learn, it is particularly important that the description provides the bridge between what the child experiences incidentally, and what the typical child experiences with vision. For example, while children with vision loss learn inductively, description can make concepts easier to learn by presenting them deductively, from the general to the specific. In effect, the describer provides the structure that serves as an organizer for learning.

As much as we might like to think otherwise, Ely, Emerson, Maggiore, O’Connell, & Hudson (2006) remind us that description does not stand alone. In the only intervention study examining the use of description with children, Ely et al. found that “increases in the acquisition of curricular content [did] not necessarily generalize to application of that knowledge. Extrapolatory activities that engage students in applying knowledge are still an important part of the learning process” (p. 38).

Description of multimedia educational content is not an exact science—it is truly an art that requires perception, judgment, creativity, and commitment to concise and meaningful communication from the student’s point of view. The guidelines presented in the Description Key are general principles, and the examples that will be added over the course of the next few months are key to understanding how to apply these principles on any specific occasion.

Some General Considerations

Remember that not all programs are suitable for description, nor is description always necessary. Tightly worded, continuous scripts limit the room for description, and sometimes gaps between dialogue and narration are so short that description is more distracting than helpful. In the same vein, description is not always necessary. Time constraints limit what information can be described, and perhaps the narration or dialogue is sufficient for comprehension of any information available on-screen. Key visual information is prioritized and written in as clear a fashion as possible, matching the tone of the program, yet not all of the information needed for full comprehension is truly accessible (Ely, Emerson, Maggiore, O’Connell, & Hudson, 2006). Because description has generally been, to date, a postproduction process, the content or the goals of the program cannot be altered. Description should not enhance or detract from the original production; it should only act as a bridge between the production’s visual content and the audience’s comprehension of the content.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind (2006) points out that children with visual impairments have a vast range of needs, from total blindness to low vision, who may also have other disabilities in addition to vision loss. As RNIB states, this makes it difficult to develop a “blueprint for audio description that is suitable for all.” Yet, understanding these needs can result in the creation of described educational multimedia that “are likely to enhance [children’s] understanding…, help their language development, and give them a sense of inclusion” (RNIB, 2006).

A Final Note

Description carries both an obligation and a responsibility to present information factually, without opinion or prejudice, in a manner that facilitates understanding. As Piety (2003) wrote:

Describers are the first human link in the unidirectional process of making media accessible. What the describer selects for description, the manner it is described in, and how it is positioned in the modified text is final. The describer is a gatekeeper of information. It is a role that is both powerful and difficult. The describer must balance all of the visual and linguistic factors, must select which information is to be presented and how it will be presented within the textual constraints (p. 37).

We offer these guidelines in recognition of both the potential and the responsibility that description has to change the education and the futures of children with visual impairments. We hope these guidelines will help description writers meet the challenge.

References and Resources

For bibliographical information and links to sites with more information about description, please consult this document containing a list of references and resources for the Description Key [PDF].

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