by Joel Snyder
In 1971, I was in my late teens, studying theater and English as a sophomore in undergraduate school. I had always been involved with theater and music, using my voice in myriad capacities.
I auditioned for and was accepted as a volunteer reader for a closed-circuit radio reading service, The Washington Ear, designed to provide access to the daily newspaper and other print material for people who are blind. One of my assignments had me reading aloud the Washington Post on Sunday mornings. But how does one “read” the comics—the visual images are integral to the experience. I simply described them as though we were telling a story to a friend over the phone. It never occurred to me at that point that I was a “translator”—translating visual images into words, expressing them in a form that would make those images accessible to someone who can’t see them.
In 1980, Arena Stage, a theater in Washington, DC, assembled a group of people to provide advice on accessibility issues. Among the committee members was a blind woman, Dr. Margaret Pfanstiehl (née Rockwell). Margaret was the founder of The Washington Ear. When she learned that Arena was installing an assistive listening system for the benefit of people who do not hear well, she wondered if the same system couldn’t be used to voice descriptions in the pauses between pieces of dialogue or critical sound elements. Arena was willing to experiment with the concept; Margaret came back to The Ear and gathered several of us together to consider how we might provide this description service and the world’s first audio description service was born. I was already doing my volunteer reading at The Ear and I had a background as a professional voice actor and English teacher—so a match was made!
41 years later, I am proud to be known internationally as one of the world’s first “audio describers,” a pioneer in the field of Audio Description, a translation of visual images to vivid language for the benefit, primarily, of people who are blind or have a vision impairment. Since 1981, I have introduced audio description techniques in over 40 states and 64 countries and have made thousands of live events, media projects and museums accessible.
In 2014, the American Council of the Blind published my book, The Visual Made Verbal – A Comprehensive Training Manual and Guide to the History and Applications of Audio Description. It is now available as an audio book and in Braille from the Library of Congress, in screen reader accessible formats, and in English, Polish, Russian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Chinese print editions; a version in Italian is planned for 2022. My PhD is from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona with a focus on audiovisual translation and audio description. I am the President of Audio Description Associates, LLC (www.audiodescribe.com) and serves as the Founder/Senior Consultant of the Audio Description Project of the American Council of the Blind (https://adp.abc.org).