Can Inaccurate Audio Description Be Good?

Homer Simpson, a bald cartoon character with five o'clock shadow and yellow skin, goggles at a smoking joint pinched between his thumb and forefinger.

Can Inaccurate Audio Description Be Good?

I have a lot of conversations with visually impaired people about audio description. Regardless of the specific aspect of the medium under discussion or the type of person I’m talking with, folks almost universally offer a list of titles with audio description they like, without prompt. It was strange to me, when I began watching the titles they suggested, that many of them had quite poor description.


But who am I, a sighted person, to say description the visually impaired audience enjoys is bad? ‘Bad’ is the wrong word; the real issue is inaccuracy. Even if a description track is riddled with factual errors a completely blind person could watch the program without batting an eye.


In one show, a character’s introduction showed them smoking a joint. However, the description said they were smoking a cigarette. For someone who is completely blind, this error was impossible to notice. It doesn’t greatly affect the plot in any way, but to me it’s still a large oversight. When we first meet a character in a story every small detail about them matters. There is often quite a large difference between the type of person who would smoke a cigarette versus someone who smokes weed.


While all description should obviously strive to be accurate, the existence of inaccurate description that audiences enjoy brought a philosophical dilemma to my mind: Is access to visual media about being entertained or is it about knowing exactly what happens on screen? What is more valuable, enjoyment or truth?


I posed this question to the community on the r/Blind forum on reddit. I have to admit their responses surprised me. Since sighted people generally view programs on Netflix and other streaming services as disposable entertainment, I suspected this theme would carry over to the blind community. Not so. Though the sample size was small, the unanimous answer was ‘truth over entertainment’. 


If accuracy is the metric audio description listeners judge our work on, we need to improve — especially if they won’t notice. Factual errors are all too common in description on all of the major streaming platforms and our audience doesn’t know when we get details wrong. 


This seems a great disservice to the people who trust us to tell them the story everyone else is experiencing. The VI community has faith that description is correct and by including inaccuracies we essentially ‘trick’ people who trust us. 


Completely blind listeners were capable of catching some errors. The most frequent noticeable error mentioned involved misnaming characters — an easy mistake for a writer to make when character names recur dozens of times in a script. Fortunately, this error doesn’t ruin the story since blind viewers were able to hear who the actual character is. However, it does break immersion and ruin individual scenes. If you’re reading this and you’re an AD writer, please double check characters’ names.


Though the VI commenters in my tiny survey view audio description as a means of accessing culture and society, I don’t want to assume this opinion is near universal. There must be some blind folks who just want to hear Iron Man beat the crap out of Thanos and don’t care if they get to talk about it by the water cooler. Let me know if that’s you.

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