Volume III Number 2, June 1996

Adding Audio Description To Television Science Programs: What Is The Impact On Visually Impaired Viewers?

Emilie Schmeidler
American Foundation for the Blind

Science programs on television (TV) present much of their information only visually. For people who are visually impaired this reliance on visual cues limits access to the learning and enjoyment such programs offer. Audio description (sometimes called "video description") inserts descriptions of a TV program's key visual elements into natural pauses in the program. It is intended to provide visually impaired people with more access to the programs' content and to make viewing more satisfying. Including description promotes two social policy objectives:

(1) ensuring that people with disabilities have the same access to information and opportunities that people without disabilities do, and

(2) advancing scientific literacy. As subcontract of a National Science Foundation grant to the WGBH Education Foundation, the American Foundation for the Blind undertook this research to examine the effects that adding audio description has on the TV viewing of visually impaired adults.


The research was based on two telephone interviews and two personal interviews collected during TV viewing sessions; thus, four sets of data were collected from each participant. The initial interview included questions about vision, TV viewing, interest in science and TV science programs, and personal background. At the viewing session, the participants were shown two TV programs; after each program, each participant individually answered factual questions about the program and questions about his or her reactions to the program. In the follow-up telephone interview, in addition to a small number of factual questions from the two programs, each participant was asked about TV viewing at home and then more specifically about audio description.

The viewing sessions were the experimental portion of this study. In them, each participant saw one TV program presented with description and a different program presented without description. Thus, each person was considered an experimental participant for the program she or he watched with description and a control participant for the program she or he watched without description. All participants saw the same two programs in the same order, and all were asked identical questions, whether they had seen the program with or without description. The two programs, drawn from different science series, differed in style. The first was a more fast-paced show; while it did offer limited opportunities for description to be added, these were generally quite brief. The second program contained longer segments in which information was conveyed by visual images without verbal cues for those who cannot see what is happening.

Participants were recruited in the Boston area through public and private organizations oriented to visually impaired clients, employees, or members. A total of 111 legally blind adults participated in the study. The participants ranged in age from 20 to 89. About two-fifths had been legally blind since birth. Although all the participants were legally blind, they varied in the extent to which they had usable vision at the time of this study: just over one-third reported that they had no usable vision; nearly one-half reported they had a little usable vision, and slightly less than one-fifth report they had considerable usable vision.


(1) TV viewing at home. The overwhelming majority of the study participants felt that, when they watch TV, they miss information that is available to fully sighted persons. Often, when they watch with other people, someone describes what is happening at least some of the time. Virtually all the participants said that such descriptions help them understand and enjoy the programs. However, nearly two-thirds of the participants said that they watch TV alone all or most of the time, so no one is available to provide the descriptions.

(2) Response to viewing session programs. After watching each program, each participant was asked about his or her responses to the program. Overall, the participants reported that they enjoyed each program. They judged both programs to be satisfying and enjoyable, informative, interesting, and clear. For each of the questions, one-quarter to one-half of the participants gave the highest ratings; this similarity of responses makes it difficult to show differences between the participants who saw the program with description and those who saw the program without description. The two groups did not show any significant differences with regard to the first program they saw. For the second program, those who saw the program with description rated the program as significantly more satisfying, more informative, and more clear than did those who saw it without description.

(3) Response to audio description in general. The questions in the viewing session did not direct the participant's attention to whether the program did or did not contain added description. One to two months after the viewing session, each participant was asked about his or her reaction to described TV programs in general. The participants said that audio description generally is interesting, informative, and enjoyable; it is neither confusing nor boring, but some description repeats information some people could have figured out themselves. The overwhelming majority of participants said that, given a choice, they prefer to watch programs with description and would seek out described programs.

(4) Social benefits of audio description in the viewing session. After watching each program, the participants were asked how comfortable they would be talking about that program with sighted friends. Then they were asked how many aspects of the program they would have difficulty discussing. The responses of the groups who saw the first program with and without description did not differ. However, those who saw the second program with description reported they would be more comfortable talking about the program with sighted friends and fewer aspects would be difficult to discuss.

(5) Social benefits of audio description in general. One to two months after the viewing session, the participants were asked whether, in general, having TV programs described makes them more comfortable talking about programs with fully sighted persons. Three-quarters of the participants said description makes them more comfortable.

(6) Audio description as a learning tool. TV science programs provide an opportunity for informal learning. Although each of the programs was designed to provide information in an enjoyable manner, neither the programs nor the viewing sessions were organized to emphasize that the participants should learn the material that was being presented.

To measure whether audio description enhances informal science learning, immediately after seeing each program, the participants were asked factual questions in a multiple choice format. A little over half the questions were based on material drawn from the program as presented without description; the remaining questions were based on material that was presented in the audio description. (For convenience, the former are called "narrated questions" and the latter "described questions.") Then, a month or two later, the participants were asked a smaller number of questions about central points of each program, again including both narrated and described questions.

Whether the participants saw the described or nondescribed version of the program, they answered correctly about the same number of narrated questions. In contrast, those who saw the described version of the program were significantly more likely than those who saw the nondescribed version to answer correctly the described questions. This finding was true both immediately after seeing the programs and a month or two later. Thus, the study participants were likely to note information that was presented in the descriptions and to retain what they had learned over the next months.


Audio description of TV programs is a relatively recent innovation in the blindness field. Anecdotal evidence has indicated that description is well received by viewers who are blind or severely visually impaired. This research was designed to obtain a more precise understanding of the aspects of TV viewing that adding description enhances by collecting attitudinal data and measuring participants' responses to two specific programs.

The visually impaired participants in this study reported that they do watch TV but that when they watch TV without description, they feel they are missing information that is available to fully sighted people. For them, adding description makes TV programs more enjoyable and interesting. They said they prefer to watch described rather than nondescribed programs on TV and that they would seek out described programs on science topics.

The participants also reported that having description enables them to use the programs more in social settings. Having programs described makes them more comfortable discussing the programs with sighted friends. It also makes a difference in their ability to talk about the program and to ask others questions about it.

Finally, the participants in this study believed that having audio description makes programs more informative. Furthermore, experimental data from this evaluation show objectively that the participants learned information that was presented in the descriptions and that they retained that information over several weeks between the viewing session and the follow-up telephone interview.


The research reported here was supported by a subcontract to the American Foundation for the Blind from WGBH Education Foundation; National Science Foundation Grant #ESI-9253447. A longer report, the questionnaires, and other study documents are available from the American Foundation for the Blind.

Schmeidler, E. (1996). Adding audio description to television science programs: What is the impact on visually impaired viewers? Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 3(2).