Enhancing video with audio descriptions for learners that are visually impaired

Technology Keyboard Computing by Daniel Agrelo: https://pixabay.com/en/technology-keyboard-computing-785742/

“A picture is worth a thousands words.”

The chances are very good that you have heard this English idiom at one time or another. Conveying a message, idea, or concept through the use of a visual element (e.g., video) rather than words may prove very advantageous when it comes to presenting something that may be more complex in nature or better understood by using a visual reference. But what if you are a person with a visual disability? What if that visual element and the message it conveys plays a vital role in understanding the task at hand?

“…if people who are blind are using materials that are designed to enhance and maximize learning using text and images, they may be more at a disadvantage if they are accessing only textual content.” (Evans and Graeme, 2008)

There have been numerous studies that have “shown that the multimedia presentation of learning content can lead to an enhanced learning experience and better performance” (Mayer, 2003; Mayer and Moreno, 2003; Moreno and Mayer, 1999; Najjar, 1998). Being able to provide a video component that is accessible and useful for a learner with a visual disability is the ill-structured problem that poses an issue not only within the online learning environment but the traditional classroom as well.

So the question is, how can technology and the various digital tools available be used to assist learners that are visually impaired so that he/she can successfully interact with multimedia content and participate in an enhanced learning experience in the same capacity as a learner that is fully sighted?

The Web-Based Tool

A college level course in basic Web Programming that is taught fully in an online environment can be difficult for any learner that is new to the field. Visual, as well as written references, are not only used for explanation but also to provide reference points to enhance better understanding of a specific topic.

The use of various types of assistive technologies such as screen readers and magnifiers are commonplace for learners with a visual disability. In addition, I found a free web-based accessibility tool called YouDescribe, that allows for providing audio descriptions within a YouTube video. Audio descriptions are used to provide additional narration, which is beneficial to individuals with a visual impairment. YouDescribe was developed by The Smith-Kettlewill Video Description Research and Development Center (VDRDC) which focuses on “developing 21st century tools for a new age of video accessibility”.

A YouDescribe Video discussing Basic web page components found on the Macomb Community College website.

All of the video components that are used within my online courses are uploaded to YouTube and made available to my students, which makes YouDescribe a very useful tool for adding audio descriptions to my existing video content. YouDescribe doesn’t modify or redistribute the original YouTube video, everything is kept in tact allowing two separate versions of the video that the learner can access depending on their individual needs and/or preferences.

YouDescribe provides easy step-by-step instructions on Recording within their website along with a Google-based support forum and FAQs for both “Viewers” and “Describers”. There aren’t any special software requirements for the “describer” or the “viewer” other than access to a web browser. YouDescribe accesses the microphone on your computer, which is used to record the audio descriptions that accompany the YouTube video.

The following are enhancements that I would like to see become available within YouDescribe that would provide additional options both for the “describer” and “viewer”:

  • The ability to set the listing option for the video (public, unlisted, or private) similar to what you can do within YouTube
  • The ability to create an audio description for a single image (currently you can only add audio descriptions to videos)

How YouDescribe Enables a Learner

YouDescribe assists learners with a visual disability by providing additional instruction and narrative to a video component. This additional information can be used to enhance other assistive technologies already in use. Using a tool such as YouDescribe levels the playing field for learners that are visually impaired and sighted. Both learner groups have access to the same information and in some cases; the learner who has a visual disability is supplied with additional information simply because of the nature of the tool.

“In a practical sense, instructors and designers of learning resources must continue to think carefully about the technical accessibility of their materials and constantly seek ways of refining and updating them to optimize the learning experience of users who are blind.” (Evans and Graeme, 2008)

See YouDescribe in action and how it can be useful in helping to support learners that are visually impaired.

The completed YouDescribe video referenced within the YouTube video above is located here.


Agrelo, D. (2015, May). [Technology, Keyboard, Computing, Peripheral] [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/en/technology-keyboard-computing-785742/

Audio Description. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved September 2, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audio_description

Evans, S., & Douglas, G. (2008). E-learning and blindness: A comparative study of the quality of an E-learning experience. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 102(2), 77-88. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.msu.edu.proxy1.cl.msu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.proxy1.cl.msu.edu/docview/222044681?accountid=12598

Mayer, R. (2003). The promise of multimedia learning: Using the same instructional design methods across different media. Learning and Instruction, 13, 125-139.

Mayer, R. G., & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning,  Educational Psychologist, 38, 43-52.

Moreno, R., & Mayer, R. G. (1999). Cognitive principles of multimedia learning: The role of modality and contiguity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 358-368.

Najjar, L. J. (1998). Principles of educational multimedia user interface design. Human Factors, 40, 311-323.



2 thoughts on “Enhancing video with audio descriptions for learners that are visually impaired

  1. I enjoyed reading this blog, I had never thought about how something as useful as videos could be challenging to someone with a visual impairment. How do you describe the video? Do you just talk about the visual aspects? Do they watch the YouDescribe then the video clip? I have several students with visual impairment and I think this could be a great tool to use with them. Thank you for sharing.

    Kelsey Shoemaker

    1. One of the resources that I came across while researching this topic described audio descriptions (AD) as “…the insertion of audio explanations and descriptions of the settings, characters, and action taking place in such media, when such information about these visual elements is not offered in the regular audio presentation.” (http://bit.ly/2cAHg6e) It’s very similar to close captioning for people with hearing impairments.

      The student that has an visual impairment would watch the YouDescribe video, usually using some other type of assistive technology such as a screen reader, and hopefully be able to better understand what is occurring in the video through the use of the audio descriptions inserted at various spots throughout the video. Since it was the first time I did it, I wasn’t entirely sure of where to insert the descriptions. Going forward, I would do more research to find out if there are guidelines and “best practices” available for adding audio descriptions so that I can provide the most beneficial experience to the student.

      Thank you for your comment!

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