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Ouch Guide to ... Audio Description

by Ouch Team

18th February 2008

What is Audio Description?

It is an extra audio commentary for blind or partially sighted people. When there is a gap in the dialogue on TV or at the theatre, for instance, an extra voice jumps in to explain anything visual going on so that visually impaired people can follow the plot.
TV set
In short: it tells you what visual stuff is going on while the characters aren't talking.

You may also see Audio Description referred to as a 'narrative' soundtrack or commentary.

What does it sound like?

For example, when watching a film, a blind person may hear a thirty second silence followed by a crash and a scream on the soundtrack. Add Audio Description, though, and suddenly it'll be clear what's going on:
"A tall man, dressed in dirty overalls, quietly sneaks into Jane's house. She is doing aerobics in her upstairs bedroom, blissfully unaware as the man creeps silently, toe by toe, up the staircase, looking left to right. He steals himself and runs at the door. When he bursts into her room, Jane sees he has a stick of dynamite in his hand. She is terrified. She stares at him and her mouth begins to open ..."

Where would I find Audio Description?

The short answer is: on TV, on DVD, on video, at the cinema, at theatre performances, in museums and also at sports grounds.

Although you'll find references to Audio Description around, at the moment it isn't very widespread. But it is growing in popularity. Soon, Audio Description for blind people will be as well-known and widespread as subtitles are for deaf people.

How do I get Audio Description on my TV?

Currently you can receive Audio Description on digital television via Sky Digital, Freeview, and on Virgin Media. You cannot receive it on an ordinary old-fashioned analogue TV.
Sky Digital remote control

How do I get Audio Description on Sky Digital?

If you have a Sky Digital satellite receiver, it'll cost you nothing and take only one minute to set up. All you need to do is change a setting in one of the on-screen menu options and you'll get Audio Description straight away. In addition to this, all programmes carrying the service can be highlighted in white in the on-screen guides, and there is an option to hear a beep when you land on a channel where an audio described programme is in progress. .

To set up Audio Description, here's what you do : pick up your Sky remote control and press the Services button on it. A menu will appear on your TV screen. Press 4 which will bring you to System Setup and press the big round OK button on your control.

Then press 3 which takes you to Languages and Subtitles, select it. Once there, arrow down once to Audio Description. It will say "Off" next to it if you've not played with these settings before. Switch it to "On" by hitting the right arrow on your remote control.

From there, if you wish to highlight all programmes carrying Audio Description in white, arrow down 4 times to highlight programmes, and right arrow once to turn this on.

If you would like a beep to sound when you land on an audio described programme, from where you are, arrow down once to beep for Audio Description, and again, right arrow to turn this on.

Now that Audio Description is set to "On", you need to save the settings. Arrow down the screen to the Save New Settings option and press that big OK button again. Finally, hit the Backup button on your remote control until you're out of the menus.

Hurrah! You've now set your TV to play Audio Description automatically every time there is a described programme being broadcast. Check your guide to see when the next programme with Audio Description is due to be aired, then tune in and listen to what it sounds like.

Important: If you live in London and have satellite TV, you can get Audio Description for BBC1, BBC2, ITV1 and Channel 4 on the channels you'd expect (101 to 104). But if you live elsewhere, you may need to key another channel number into your remote control:

BBC1 on channel 974 - BBC1 with AD for those outside the London region.
BBC2 on channel 989 - BBC2 with AD for those outside of the England region.
ITV1 on channel 993 - ITV1 with AD for those living outside the London region.
Channel 4 on channel 994 - Channel 4 with AD for those living outside the London region.

All other channels remain in the normal slots that you are used to seeing them in.

More help:

Sky Disabled Customer Services helpline: 08705 663333
Sky Accessibility website

BBC Digital TV information line: 08700 100789
BBC TV Reception website.

(Note that on Sky, it is not possible to adjust the volume of the Audio Description separately from that of the programme sound. Most visually impaired people have no problem with this, but if you also have a hearing difficulty, you might find the next section useful. Read on.)

How do I get Audio Description on Freeview?

There are now a range of integrated digital televisions available with audio description. This means that you don't need any special boxes or gizmos to access Freeview, and AD is built in. Once the audio description is set up to run on your TV, every available described programme can be accessed simply by going to the correct channel. Audio Description can be switched off as easily as it was turned on, through the settings menu on your remote control. These televisions range in price from under £500, to over £2000 and an updated list can be found on the TVHelp website.

There is only one Freeview set top box on which you can receive Audio Description. It's called the LOGIK LDR V3, and is available from Currys , and the RNIB, for around 60 pounds. The company who make this box, TVonics, also have a Freeview receiver with AD which can be used on televisions without a scart lead. It's called the MDR300. To find out more call: 0870 80 30 551 (calls charged at national rate).

There are two other gizmos with which you can receive Freeview with AD - a PC card for your computer and an accessible digital media centre. Here are the details:

The Nebula Electronics PC card receives audio described Freeview so that you can watch and listen to TV on your computer. You can also use it to record TV programmes in advance using its timer feature, which records directly onto your computer's hard disk drive.
Call 01689 897090 to purchase.

The portset digital media centre is a totally accessible stand-alone machine, providing freeview with Audio Description and talking TV guides, along with a range of other media services. There are separate volume controls for the TV tuner and Audio Description track, which might be useful if you have a hearing impairment. This gadget starts at £849.
Call 01489 893919 for more information.

For more help and/or technical details on Audio Description, call the RNIB on: 020 7391 2398 or email
A digital television

How do I get Audio Description on Cable?

It is now possible to get some Audio Description on Virgin Media. To do this, follow the switch on instructions below.

Press the home key on your remote, and then the number 8 for settings. Press 4 to Change Display and Audio Settings, then arrow down 4 times, right once and ok to save settings.

Are all television programmes audio described?

No. All BBC Channels have AD, as do all ITV channels, Channel 4, E4 and Five.

The more popular digital channels also have Audio Description. These include the UKTV channels, Living TV, Sky 1, Sky 2, Sky 3, Sky Travel, Sky Sports, Sky Movies, Sky Box Office, Bravo, Discovery and others.

[In 2005, the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom stipulated that 76 channels must carry AD. Current regulations state that all BBC channels must audio describe at least 8% of their programmes per week, the rest of the channels mentioned have slightly lower targets, but all are raised by Ofcom every 2 years.]

Where do I find out what programmes are going to be audio described on telly tonight?

There are a number of publications and online TV guides that carry this info:

TV Help - Great website. It lists the programmes with Audio Description that you can see on Freeview and Sky tonight, and for the next 7 days too.

Sky Audio Description listings - Great resource to find out what programmes are audio described on Five and the BSkyB channels. It's particularly useful, as it also tells you which Sky Box Office movie has AD this week (always broadcast on channel 744).

BBC What's On - Audio described programme listings for all BBC channels, from BBC1, 2, 3 & 4 through to CBeebies, plus info about the programmes too. All audio described programmes are marked with [ad]

• The listings in the print edition of the Radio Times, as well as on the Radio Times website, indicate where programmes are audio described.

• Your Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) on satellite and Freeview will tell you whether a programme is audio described. Hit the information button on your remote control and look for the [AD] symbol after the billing. Note that you can only look up programmes in advance on satellite. Freeview only gives you billing information as the programme is being broadcast.

Channel 4's automated viewer enquiries line has a recorded list of programmes you'll be able to watch on its various channels this week. Call 020 7306 8333 and hit option 2 in the menu. They also provide details on how to receive AD here.

• The RNIB TV Guide publication, available every week in Braille from the RNIB, has listings for BBC1, BBC2, ITV1, Channel 4 and Five. Programmes with Audio Description have an 'AD:' after the time and before the programme title. This publication is also available via email and floppy disk. The price is 50p per copy. Call RNIB Customer Services on 08457 023153 to order it, or purchase it via the RNIB Online Shop.

• The DAISY-CD TV Guide from the RNIB contains listings for the five main TV networks, plus many digital channels. It is an audio CD with an electronic voice. It can be used on your Victor Talking Book machine, and by any DAISY CD player both stand-alone and PC based. It costs 80p per week. To order, call RNIB Customer Services on 08457 023153, or purchase via the RNIB Online Shop.

• Programme listings are available on channel 900 if you have an iPlayer Freeview box. You will need to connect your box to your phone line or broadband connection first as it is delivered via the internet..
A disc sliding into a DVD player

Can I get Audio Description on DVD?

Yes, you can. Here's how:

An increasing number of DVDs now have AD on them. When buying or renting, check the case - it should tell you. Just like accessing subtitles or a different language, navigate the options on your DVD menu and make sure you select 'English with Audio Description' or similar. If you're visually impaired, this might be something you need a bit of sighted assistance with. Note that these aren't 'special' DVDs; they're just regular DVDs that have the extra Audio Description soundtrack. They should not be confused with the Director's Commentary, which is a totally different thing.

But, I hear you ask, what DVDs have been released with Audio Description included? Check out the following two links, both of which are regularly updated and contain the very latest DVD release information:

DVD titles downloadable list in Word format from the RNIB

DVD titles on the web from

Note that when hiring a DVD from a video rental store, the discs are usually not in the original casing and hence may not tell you whether the DVD has AD. This does not mean that it doesn't, though! So it's useful to check the RNIB's DVD list before trotting off to the movie rental store.

Can you get Audio Description on video?

Yes. There are over 150 movies that have been audio described. They are available to buy or rent only from the RNIB. Read a list of video titles available now at the RNIB Online Shop,.or order over the phone by calling 08457 023153. You can also email RNIB customer services.

Note that unlike DVDs, these are specially made videos with AD mixed into the regular movie soundtrack. They are not available in shops or in video rental stores.

How does Audio Description work at the cinema?

There are an increasing number of cinemas that have Audio Description equipment - approximately 160 at the time of writing. Here are some useful things you should be aware of when trying to find a movie to watch at the cinema:

• It's estimated that around 8 out of 10 films released each week have an AD soundtrack.

• If your cinema is AD-enabled, in most cases only one of the screens will have the Audio Description equipment physically installed. For example, if Screen 1 has the equipment in it, only the film showing in screen 1 will be audio described ... even if you know that the films in screen 2, 3 and 4 are available with AD soundtracks elsewhere. Some cinemas have moveable equipment though, so make friends with the staff and projectionists and maybe you'll get a bit of flexibility. Remember, this technology is still all very new, and the staff will get quite excited when you enquire. However, you'll equally find that some staff don't know what on earth you're talking about.

• Turn up at the cinema. When you buy your tickets ask for an Audio Description headset. The AD soundtrack can only be heard through these headphones, so no one else in the theatre will be able to hear it. Some theatres charge a small deposit.

• To avoid disappointment, we suggest you contact the cinema in advance to doublecheck that your fave film is going to be audio described and that the equipment is working well.

• Don't forget to take advantage of the new cinema pass scheme that allows a personal assistant to accompany you for free in 500 participating cinemas if you meet their criteria. The card is known as The Cinema Exhibitors' Association Card.
The interior of a cinema

How do I find out if my local cinema does Audio Description?

Details of cinemas with AD equipment installed can be found by following this link to

How do I find out what cinema films are audio described this week?

• If you want to find out what audio described film is being shown at your local cinema this week, follow this link to

There are also two useful internet mailing lists you can subscribe to:

• Subscribe free of charge to the email newsletter. Send a request to Expect an email every Thursday lunchtime with details of what's on at your local multiplex, and also news of the latest available audio described DVDs.

• The RNIB's weekly email newsletter, sent by Jill Whitehead complements the above newsletter rather nicely, with a list and plot synopsis of what films have been distributed round the country with an AD soundtrack. Email and ask to be put on the list. You can also telephone the RNIB broadcasting team on 020 7391 2398.
Stage curtains in a theatre

Audio Description at the theatre

Like at the cinema, you receive the Audio Description commentary over a pair of headphones, which you need to ask for in the foyer. Unlike cinema though, the performance is live and hence the Audio Description is performed live too by someone hidden away in a back room watching the play.

In addition to the Audio Description during the performance, some theatres also make time to give you a touch tour of the stage, scenery and costumes before the audience arrive, should you so wish.

How do I find out what plays and performances are going to be audio described at the theatre?

Here are a few useful websites that should give you all the information you need. Note that it's always a good idea to doublecheck with the theatre by phone before purchasing your ticket, in order to avoid disappointment.

RNIB: audio described theatre 'What's On' guide - Fantastic and comprehensive site that lists audio described plays and musicals in theatres around the United Kingdom. Find other related info on the RNIB's main theatre AD page.

London Theatre Guide - This page lists upcoming AD performances in London theatres by date. Not nearly as comprehensive as the above RNIB website, but it does also have plot synopsis and direct links to more info about the performance, including the price of tickets.

What's On from Vocaleyes - The listings section on the website of one of the companies that provides the Audio Description in many different venues.

Are sporting events audio described?

Yes. the provision of Audio Description at local and national sport stadia and arenas is growing. Radio-style commentaries can be delivered over headsets or loudspeakers at football matches, cricket and other events. Arsenal, Charlton, Manchester United, Sussex and Surrey County Cricket Clubs provide such facilities, and the new Wembley Stadium will have it too.

As sports grounds are rather big places, some grounds can only broadcast audio commentary to just one part - or enclosure - in the ground, so you may have little choice about where you sit ... and you might even be seated in a special disabled area. New technology that can broadcast to an entire staidium (RAD) is around now, though. Some grounds already have this, meaning that you can sit wherever you like with whoever you like.

Taking a Walkman along and tuning in to the match on local radio or on BBC Radio Five Live is a partial solution, though often radio stations don't carry entire matches and may break away for travel news or a newsflash.

Attention all budding sports commentators! Your local footie club could be looking for someone to provide commentary to visually impaired people. Email for more details on this and other sport AD enquiries.

Audio description at sport events - The RNIB has sports and AD covered on this comprehensive page.
Football fans

Are museums and galleries audio described?

Yes, but access to museums and galleries isn't just about the audio. Access to exhibitions can also mean: touch tours, braille or large print info sheets and/or sighted assistance around the exhibits. Description of artworks and objects can be delivered either through an audio guide (which sometimes includes way-finding information as well) or as part of a live description given by a real person. Each participating exhibition or museum is likely to have a different combination of help for visually impaired people.

What's new in museums and galleries - The RNIB's guide to the latest audio assisted exhibitions you might wish to visit. Plus, there's more general detail on their museums, galleries and heritage sites AD main page.

Vocaleyes What's On - The Audio Description providers Vocaleyes also provide commentary at museums. Check out this What's On guide for more details and ideas on where to visit.
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