Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Failures in audio description:
The Arrow

The Arrow is a 1997 CBC miniseries that offers a fictionalized account of the development and destruction of a made-in-Canada fighter aircraft, the Avro Arrow, in the 1950s. Though vaguely mawkish and overly patriotic in tone, the series was well-received critically and widely viewed on television.

Evidently The Arrow aired on CBC with audio description – by AudioVision Canada. The program is now also available on a double-VHS-video set with always-audible descriptions, which I have reviewed here.

AudioVision Canada produces not merely manifestly but miserably, infuriatingly inferior work. Despite receiving training by the inventors of audio description as we know it, Cody and Margaret Pfanstiehl, and by the Descriptive Video Service at WGBH (seasoned, reliable practitioners of this new form of accessibility), AudioVision’s work stinks.

Describers seem entirely unaware of basic precepts of audio description, like “Describe what you see” and “Don’t editorialize.” Throughout The Arrow and everything I’ve ever seen with AudioVision descriptions, describers repeatedly interpret invisible emotional states on our behalf, miss important details, and overwrite. Narrators are overzealous when they’re not old and creaky.

AudioVision fails to provide respectful, responsible access to television programming. Instead, relatively untrained and clearly underqualified describers impose their own personal impressions and display a notable inability to write concisely, accurately, and without hyperbole. AudioVision’s work is shameful and inadequate, and carries on the fine Canadian tradition of lousy accessible media: We’ve been putting up with inferior Canadian captioning for 15 years.

You want proof? I’ve got it.

The Arrow with audio description:
A thorough, maddening failure

First, and surprisingly, the reproduction quality of the videotape is poor – the sort of thing you’d expect if you dubbed the tape yourself from an EP original to an SP copy on a home VHS VCR. It’s like watching second-generation porn. The graininess, the posterization, the colour shifts all serve to make you more blind than you actually are. Also, the tapes are not captioned, and audio quality of the describer’s voice is often poor.

Here’s a rundown of AudioVision’s many failures in describing The Arrow.


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Updated 2007.02.28

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