Joe Clark: Media access

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DVDs with audio description

Updated 2001.12.09

DVDs with audio description

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Listings: Region 1, Region 2


It is virtually impossible to answer the question “Which DVDs have audio description tracks?” from the bits and pieces available online. As a service, I have assembled every bit and piece I can come up with and offer this page as a comprehensive listing of every DVD known to carry audio description (for blind and visually-impaired viewers, canonically).



  • Home videotapes can carry closed captions (because captions are a hidden and integral part of the video signal), but they cannot carry more than one audio track. That is true even though videotapes can and do carry stereo audio. Unlike captioning, then, it is impossible to produce a single home video that works for blind and sighted viewers in the way that videos can work for deaf and hearing viewers.
  • DVDs can carry up to eight audio tracks. It is theoretically possible to provide main audio and dubbing in three languages and audio description in all four languages. In practice, all anybody’s asking for is an A.D. track in the main language of the audio (or, more generally, the language of the intended audience – an Italian-language film subtitled in English should carry English-language descriptions).
  • The available space on a DVD is not unlimited. It is possible that, after including main audio (in multiple forms, like 5.1 and two-channel) and video, director’s commentary, menus, trailers, deleted scenes, music videos, DVD-ROM or Web “content,” making-of documentaries, interviews, and other “special features,” there simply are not enough bits left on the disc to accommodate even one more audio track. This effect may explain why reissues of T2 and Basic Instinct lacked the A.D. tracks the originals carried. (In the former case, that reportedly was the only reason.)

Oh, do you want a literary example? We do have one of those. Opening paragraph of “Datum centurio” by David Foster Wallace:

From Leckie & Webster’s Connotationally Gender-Specific Lexicon of Contemporary Usage, a 600 GB DVD3 Product with 1.6 GB of Hyperavailable Hot Text Keyed to 11.2 GB of Contextual, Etymological, Historical, Usage, and Gender-Specific Connotational Notes, Available Also with Lavish Illustrative Support in All 5 Major Sense-Media [compatible hardware required], © 2096 by R. Leckie DataFest Unltd. (NYPHDC/US/4Grid).

Yes, I think that’s the sort of thing we’re looking for here. 660 GB of hyperavailable hot text might just be enough for all the dubbing and description tracks we need.


Unlike captioning, most of whose users are hearing, most audio-description viewers actually are blind or visually-impaired. Visual interfaces are inaccessible to blind people to varying degrees.

Home players

  • The standard method of switching from one audio track to another on a DVD is to use the DVD’s own menu system. With the exception of Lincolns and The Grinch, all DVD menus require good vision.
  • Yes, menu systems on many Hollywood feature films include actual full-motion video and other menu doodads that may carry a soundtrack, but the fact remains that you are expected to navigate an entirely visual menu system. If you’re blind, that’s a problem.
  • It is even a problem to locate the Menu key on your remote control. There is no standard placement or tactually-discernible shape.
  • However, it is not at all uncommon for DVD remote controls to include dedicated Audio keys. My own machine, a Hitachi DV-C605U, has such a key.
  • Thus you have the option of simply pressing the Audio key over and over again to cycle through the soundtracks one after another. It is no trouble to press that key and Up- or Downarrow until the A.D. track comes on. I’ve done this myself with Basic Instinct and T2, though it doesn’t always work with Lincolns on my player. (I got it to work on another player once.)
  • Or, if the remote control has a Display key that gives you access to every feature and chapter all at once, you can use that. (You’d need to know how many times to press an arrow key to reach the audio controls.)
  • In these cases, then, all a blind person needs to do is figure out where the Audio and/or Display keys are (easily done with a magnifier or the one-time, 30-second help of a sighted person, e.g., the DVD salesperson), and the blind viewer has full, independent access to the A.D. track.
  • Needless to say, DVD features that really and truly can only be controlled from a visual main menu remain inaccessible. This limitation is nontrivial; there is no reason to think that a blind viewer would be less interested in behind-the-scenes documentaries or trailers than anyone else, even if presented on the disc without description (as they invariably are). You can, of course, hit the Menu key (if you know where it is) and try various arrow-key combinations until something happens.

Software players

  • A few computer DVD players come with hardware remote controls, like the Nvidia Personal Cinema. This, however, is the exception.
  • If you use a computer as a DVD player, its onscreen remote control (e.g., Apple’s) will almost certainly lack keyboard equivalents or other access hooks to function with adaptive technology like screen readers. Moreover, such players tend to assume you will click onscreen menu items directly; you cannot hack your way around using arrow keys.
  • PowerDVD does, however, duplicate most functions in keyboard commands (check the PDF user guide).

Audiovisual menus

  • WGBH has attempted to solve the problem using so-called audio navigation, though a better term might be audiovisual menus. In the first examples of this technique, Lincolns and The Grinch, you press 1 “followed by the Select key” to turn audio navigation on or off. Extremely thorough reading of onscreen text, complete with instructions on how to move around the menus, can then be heard. (It’s sometimes difficult to bypass certain screens once you get the picture. Here we note the disadvantage of the serial access medium of speech.)
  • It is not clear if this on/off method is even possible on a software DVD player. I could not get it to work with the Apple DVD Player. In any case, it remains possible to manipulate access features by clicking on them directly from the menu (or, more likely, using the keyboard arrow keys) – again an inaccessible option.
  • Still, for a typical studio DVD release with description on the movie itself only and on none of the extras, it is unnecessary to go to all the trouble of implementing audiovisual menus. Through any of the methods described above, even someone with no vision whatsoever can easily select the description audio track.

Language settings

  • With some home players, it is possible to set the machine to default to a certain language of audio and of subtitles without human intervention. Unfortunately, it seems there could not possibly be a way to set your player to select an audio-description track by default.
  • Languages are organized on DVDs by code. DVDs use the rather outdated ISO 639 specification and limit language codes to two lowercase letters. By contrast, on the Web one may use two- or three-letter language codes with optional extensions – e.g., ENG for English and ENG-Can-NF for Newfoundland Canadian English.
  • While the DVD standard provides for designating multiple technical variants of the same language of audio (e.g., 5.1 and stereo), it does not provide for designating multiple content variants of the same language of audio. There is no way of systematically differentiating EN and EN-DES (for a description track), for example.
  • Needless to say, it is also impossible to automatically distinguish two description tracks that vary by language, e.g., EN-DES and FR-DES. Something else we cannot do is differentiate multiple description tracks in the same language – e.g., one for adults, another for kids, a third offering extended descriptions for kids with a learning disability.
  • So what we deal with are multiple audio tracks registered under the same code (e.g., EN) that the human viewer must manually differentiate. Since the only way to do that, in every case but one, is to select them from a visible menu (inaccessible to blind people) or step through track after track until you hit the right one (tolerably inconvenient but sometimes inaccessible), viewers are unable to let the player do the work for them.


Yet again, there is no standard used in DVD marketing or labeling.

As I have explained at exhausting length elsewhere, the one and only generic term for audio description is audio description.

However, in DVD marketing and labeling, one sees a range of notations:

  • Descriptive Video Service® (for discs actually described by DVS)
  • “Descriptive audio track for the visually impaired” or “Descriptive TheatreVision for the visually impaired” (for discs actually described by “TheatreVision™©” [sic])

It is thus very hard to do a Web search to locate accessible DVDs by keyword because no one is using the same keywords.

Also, it goes without saying that printed labels are useless to blind people and not very useful to visually-impaired people. It would be difficult to browse through a video store, reading package after package and hoping to strike it big. This page gives you a list of titles and Web links to choose from directly. It becomes possible to walk into a store and ask for a specific title, or order online.


We have an interesting experiment available to us: DVDs of the same film with different description tracks. In the current listing, only Tarzan is in that category (Region 1; Region 2).

Duplicate VHS titles are more common. All of these titles were described both by DVS and by RNIB:

  1. Aladdin
  2. Cinderella
  3. English Patient
  4. Full Monty
  5. Lady and the Tramp
  6. Lion King
  7. Mary Poppins
  8. Mrs Doubtfire
  9. Mulan
  10. Pocahontas
  11. The Little Mermaid
  12. Pretty Woman
  13. Ransom
  14. The Rock
  15. Santa Clause
  16. Sixth Sense
  17. Toy Story
  18. Toy Story 2

RNIB and DVS have both described [Her Majesty] Mrs. Brown, but it’s available on home video only from RNIB; DVS and TheatreVision have both described Titanic, but only TheatreVision has VHS rights. DVS and TheatreVision both described Dinosaur. But those versions are not available on VHS from both providers.

In all these cases, it becomes possible to compare one description approach and style against another.

Change history

Added a couple of more Shouldas.
Added The Grinch
Added Final Fantasy to MoPix shouldas. Fixed Star Wars listing.
Corrected a raft of mistakes and made miscellaneous additions.
Updated discussion of language codes.
After finding life too short to look up all the previously-described Hollywood movies without description on DVD, I did it anyway.

Listings: Region 1, Region 2