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Provisional Guidance for Audio Description (AD)

Version 9/8/14

Notice: The draft guidelines shared below are provisional and are shared both to provide interim guidance on audio description and to capture feedback about the guidelines before becoming Final. They represent a combined effort involving representatives from OS, ACF, and NIH. If you would like to provide peer comment on the guidelines, please contact ASPA-DCD with your suggested revisions via e-mail through http://wcdapps.hhs.gov/AccessibilityAssistance/.

Background and Problem

Audio description (AD) is narration that has been added to a video to make visual content accessible to individuals who are blind or have other visual disabilities. In general, AD captures significant actions and text-based information provided onscreen. AD is required by law (1194.22 b and 1194.24 c of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act [see http://www.section508.gov/section-508-standards-guide]). HHS does have supplemental documentation supporting the use of AD (see http://www.hhs.gov/web/socialmedia/getting_started/youtube_guidance.html); however, there has not yet been guidance published by HHS about when AD must be implemented, nor is there guidance governing the content of those descriptions. Because of the context-based nature of the descriptions and the technical challenges in providing AD, full implementation of AD has lagged relative to other similar alternative formats (e.g., alt-text or captioning).

Rationale and Importance

AD is required by law, and beyond that, it is just the right thing to do—especially considering the statistics published by the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO estimates that there are over 285 million individuals with visual disabilities. And, out of that group, 39 million are estimated to be blind[1]. Given the mission of HHS, which is “to help provide the building blocks that Americans need to live healthy, successful lives[2],” it is vitally important that all content be accessible to all individuals—not just individuals without disabilities.


When AD is Necessary

Many HHS videos are simply clips of speeches. They have no plot beyond what is being spoken—so there is no appreciable action happening and little need for AD. However, it is still important to ensure that the speaker’s name, title, and institutional affiliation are placed on the website adjacent to the video player to help orient the viewer.

Some videos are more advanced in their design and require AD.  AD is necessary when either of the following is true:

  • There is appreciable action happening in a clip. For example, perhaps the National Institute of Health has published a video describing a new medical treatment. As part of that treatment there might be multiple technologies or lab equipment shown in the clip which contribute to the process. It’s important that those items be identified audibly as the camera passes over them. Or, perhaps the BeTobaccoFree Campaign produces a video about smoking cessation and the end shot of the clip is a person who is smoking but decides to put his cigarette out in an effort to show that he has chosen to stop smoking. That action is significant. It needs to have narration describing that end sequence.  
  • There are text-based messages in the video that are not already captured or explained by narration in the video. For example, perhaps the CDC has produced a video about the spread of the Flu virus, and, as part of that, several statistics about the transmission of the flu virus are shown in text form in the clip.  Or perhaps, the video is of a speaker, but, also in the shot are presentation slides that contain text-based information. Those statistics and the text-based information must have narrated equivalents.  

What and How to Describe

There is a great deal of subjectivity in providing ADs. It is easy to under- or over-narrate. AD must be thought through critically, and it must be responsive to the narrative of the video (i.e., it needs to be context driven). It must also be written or crafted succinctly enough to fit during the silence, not interfering with the spoken soundtrack. The singular aim behind AD is to create a comparable experience for users who require the description. By that, all significant information gathered through sight should have a spoken equivalent. Common considerations to be mindful of include the following:

  • Text-based information that is not already covered by existing in-video narration must have AD.
  • Significant actions that are critical to the message  of the video, such as when a character exits a scene or enters a scene, must have AD.
  • In writing Ads, avoid phrases like, “Now we see…” 

For additional recommendations on AD, please see the guidelines developed by the American Council for the Blind, available at http://www.acb.org/adp/guidelines.html


Unlike captioning, which can be turned on and off through the simple click of a button, there is currently no Web-based player that allows for that flexibility when it comes to AD. Accordingly, for videos needing AD, there must be two videos developed and posted: one with and one without AD. The title of the video having AD should include something like “with audio description” so it is clear which video is which. Although HHS does not view having two videos as ideal, until there is an accessible Web-based player that supports on-the-fly audio track switching, two videos is the best solution we can propose. Note that AD does not trump the need for the nonaudio-described video to be otherwise accessible (e.g., accessible controls and captions).

Avoiding the Need for AD

In many cases, the need for formal AD, where a separate audio track that has to be added as a post-production treatment, can be mitigated if, at the time of initial scripting, writers and producers think critically about their content and build description right into the original script (by narrating info graphics and other text-based information intended to be displayed on the screen).


Audio-Description is a means of providing access to visual multimedia content for persons who are blind or have other visual disabilities. Through an additional soundtrack, the visual images that carry meaning or value for the sighted viewer are audibly conveyed to those without sight.

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Content created by Digital Communications Division (DCD)
Content last reviewed on October 2, 2014