I should start by saying that I love audio description, I am reluctant to watch TV without it. It truly enhances my viewing experience and I can only hope that audio description continues to grow on TV.
However, the same can’t be said for live audio description. This is nothing to do with the tremendous work the describers put in. I have only admiration for the work they do. No, it is all down to the hardware used which was probably revolutionary 15 or 20 years ago but which has never really been updated.
The last time I visited a theatre and used the audio description facilities, I won’t mention its name as it could have been one of many, the experience was less than satisfactory. Despite the fact that we had pre-booked and said we would be wanting the headsets, they weren’t available on our arrival and we nearly missed the start of the play while people ran around looking for them. When we got them, the style was horrendous. They were like a pair of stethascope earphones, in that they hung in the ears and came to a point under the chin. At the point there was a bulky volume control and receiver. These earphones had silicone tips which felt a little greasy. After only a few minutes of wearing them my ears started to become painful. Every time I moved my head I got pains in my ears so had to sit very still. The reception was a little fuzzy, presumably because I was not in direct line of sight with the transmitter. I believe this is done by infra red signal.
The describer was fantastic but after a while, the discomfort I was experiencing was becoming a distraction. At the interval I took off the headset and one of the tips fell off, never to be found. I therefore returned my headset as it was no longer wearable and watched the second half of the play without it.
As I said previously, this is in no way a criticism of the theatre staff whose enthusiasm was amazing. They were very disappointed when I returned the headset for which I felt bad, but I could physically no longer wear it.
I have only ever been to three other audio described performances, one at the cinema and two at other theatres.
The cinema one was dreadful. I had a large pair of headphones so could no longer hear the film properly. There was so much static interference that after 10 minutes it was no longer possible to hear the description either.
The other two theatre performances also involved huge headphones, blocking out the sound from the stage and making me feel very isolated. One also had a spell of about 20 minutes where there was no speaking at all by the describer.
I personally believe that the infrastructure for audio description should really be updated. I would like to see it transmitted over wi-fi to a receiver held by the user, or even to the user’s mobile phone. I would like the freedom to use my own earphones as they are very personal to each individual.
I’m sure this could be done and believe that audio description can only grow if the hardware is fit for the 21st century.
Maybe there is someone technical out there who could make my dream a reality?