The Rhetoric of Description: Embodiment, Power, and Playfulness
in Representations of the Visual

Margaret Price and Erin Kathleen Bahl

Description and Digital Media Studies

Read by Margaret. Audio length: 19:55.

"Audio description" (AD1 ), sometimes just called "description," refers to a range of techniques aimed at making visual media, including still images, videos, and live performances, more accessible. The audience is usually assumed to be blind and low-vision people. For example, if you burrow into the "Advanced Settings" on Instagram in order to add alt text to an image, you'll find the explanatory line "Alt text describes your photos for people with visual impairments."2 However, descriptions are useful to any audience without reliable access to visual media—for example, those for whom images won't load (as noted in our discussion of the sudden disappearance of Facebook images in Tools). The richness of critical access studies, defined by Aimi Hamraie (2017) as a focus on the history, discourses, and values underlying approaches to accessibility (rather than just the means for achieving accessibility), stems in part from the fact that access cuts across many different systems and identities. For example, a user who can't load images might be a person using an older device; a person with a slow internet connection; or a person in a prison, school, or other institution that systematically blocks images. And yet, scholars of disability studies (DS) and digital media studies (DMS) cannot immediately slide to the simplistic conclusion, "So, we're all a little bit disabled!" Rather, close study of specific contexts is required. The inextricability of access with a variety of minoritized positions is addressed throughout our webtext. Other important works in DMS that have addressed the intersectional nature of access include those by Kristin Arola (2017); Adam Banks (2006); Jay Timothy Dolmage (2017); Jeffrey Grabill (2003); Lisa Nakamura (2002, 2015a, 2015b); Cynthia Selfe and Richard Selfe (1994).

AD originated in the 1960s in live theater and other arts productions (American Council of the Blind, 2019a; Kleege, 2016; Kleege & Wallin, 2015). At present, all kinds of visual-media creators, including streaming media services, universities, businesses that publish images and video, and individuals sharing work on TikTok, are creating or retrofitting their content so that it includes AD. For example, Netflix now offers a range of described videos, which can be found by clicking on the "Audio Description" link at the bottom of the Netflix homepage (American Council of the Blind, 2019b). Meanwhile, in late 2019, Hulu published a press release titled "Making Hulu More Accessible Than Ever Before" with information about its new "audio description hub" (Hulu, 2019). Unsurprisingly, this move is often prompted by the threat of legal action, or actual lawsuits. The American Council of the Blind (ACB) has successfully sued both Netflix and Hulu, and other parties have brought lawsuits against AMC Theatres, the Broadway production of Hamilton, and various universities. (For more on this, visit 3PlayMedia, 2019; Public Affairs, 2017; Feingold, 2012.) Emotions have run high around the recent wave of lawsuits, with disabled plaintiffs rightly pointing out that lack of access is unacceptable, while unsuccessful defendants sometimes respond with drastic and even (arguably) petulant measures, as when the University of California, Berkeley suddenly pulled all public lectures off its website rather than pursue a compromise settlement (as Netflix later did) (Larimer, 2017). Many practitioners, including attorney Lainey Feingold (2016), have argued that this sort of all-or-nothing move is unnecessary, since schools and businesses can take many other pathways toward access rather than simply stripping content.

AD is practiced across various domains, ranging from classrooms to courtrooms to museums, and is not regulated by any single standard, though a number of advisory and training organizations exist (Fryer, 2016; Snyder, 2014). Whether common standards should be established, and what those standards should be, is an evolving question (ACB, 2018). That question is outside the scope of this webtext. However, we pursue a related goal: exploring AD as a genre and a practice—a fundamentally rhetorical and creative endeavor—rather than a rote task that large corporations initiate to help a specific disabled population (who presumably are not themselves creators or designers).

Critical Access Studies

Until relatively recently, DMS scholarship tended to assume that nondisabled designers should "help" disabled readers (assumed not to be designers) access texts (Yergeau et al., 2013). Although there were welcome exceptions (Palmeri, 2006; Slatin, 2001; Spinuzzi, 2007), it was not until about 2010 that the field as a whole began to treat digital disability access as an inventive rhetorical practice rather than an assistive checklist. We specify "disability" in this instance because there had already been much important scholarship addressing access in terms of race, gender, and class: for example, consult the work of Adam Banks (2006), Jeffrey T. Grabill (2003), Gail E. Hawisher and Patricia A. Sullivan (1999), Anette Harris Powell (2007), Lisa Nakamura (2002), and Cynthia L. Selfe and Richard J. Selfe (1994).

Of course, the shift wasn't as clean or simple as that brief overview suggests. DMS scholars may still ignore access altogether, or fall into a "checklist" habit (on access checklists, see Dolmage, 2015; Oswal & Melonçon, 2017; Wood et al., 2014). Just as tends to happen with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in architectural design, digital composers may take a "minimum compliance" approach rather than exploring standards as possibilities instead of limits. However, we argue that, broadly speaking, a turn occurred around 2010, and critical access studies (Hamraie, 2017) is now blooming in rhetoric and composition and DMS. Recent examples include Sean Zdenek's (2018a) "Designing Captions" and Janine Butler's (2018) "Where Access Meets Multimodality," both from Kairos, as well as a 2018 special issue of Communication Design Quarterly on "Reimagining Accessibility and Disability in Technical and Professional Communication," guest-edited by Zdenek (2018b) and including articles by Laura Gonzales, Kevin Garrison, and Sherena Huntsman, Jared Colton, and Christopher Phillips. In a practical vein, Chad Iwertz Duffy and (2016) offered a "Starter Kit for Accessible Media," which leads participants through the process of describing and captioning digital media, not according to a set of rules, but in a way that centers critical inquiry and feminist pedagogy.

Thanks to work by scholars including those cited above, DMS is now engaged in a critical exploration of captioning, interpreting, and transcription as deeply rhetorical processes. A similar exploration is needed for AD, which requires that we engage issues including audience, style, invention, circulation, power, privilege, and identity.3 However, it's also important to remember that there are significant differences between different kinds of access moves. For example, when composing a description for a pre-recorded video, the describer may choose to pause the video during dialogue, thus implementing "extended description" (3Play Media, 2019). That option isn't usually available for live captioning or live sign interpretation. Further, the questions of "real estate" (Zdenek, 2011, 2015)—including space and time—differ. These choices are far from neutral. As our rhetorical framework for AD shows, space and time cannot be adequately engaged without also engaging embodiment, context, assumptions, who/what gets centered and named, and who/what disappears from notice (or from the algorithm).

As DMS continues to explore the implications of adaptive technologies, it can follow a pathway that has for decades been shaped by disability-studies (DS) scholars. Despite the proliferation of exciting work noted above, citations of DS scholars in DMS work often seem to point to a few "greatest hits" individuals. While we value the work of all our colleagues, we also want to call attention to the politics of citation at work here. Carrie Mott and Daniel Cockayne (2017) argued, "Citation is often a way of not talking about something or not engaging, a perfunctory act that assumes the reader is familiar with the same set of assumptions about a text as the author" (p. 965; consult also Bailey & Trudy, 2018; McCain, 2012). In other words, citations may seem to "include" a discipline (such as disability studies) while actually marginalizing it—or certain groups within it. Thus, in the following paragraphs we bring forward the work of two authors, Georgina Kleege and Amanda Cachia, whose art and scholarship have greatly influenced our understanding of AD, but who have rarely been cited within DMS.

Versions and Layers

Kleege (1999, 2005, 2015, 2016) has spent more than 20 years building a complex knowledge base around visual culture, digital media, and blindness. Her influential "Blindness and Visual Culture: An Eyewitness Account" (2005) has unpacked the stereotype of blind people as monolithically totally blind, unable to grasp concepts related in any way to visuality (such as color, art, or how to walk down stairs), and generally living in "tomb-like imprisonment" (p. 943). In fact, as Kleege has demonstrated through abundant examples and frequently funny references, there are as many ways to be blind as to be sighted, and blind people have a much stronger grasp on sighted culture than vice versa. Her work on AD, including the pathbreaking "Audio Description Described" (2016), has pushed both scholars and practitioners to reconsider assumptions about AD, such as the often-repeated directive that descriptions should remain value-neutral:

The insistence on objective neutrality seems to come from an assessment that sighted viewers enjoy an autonomous, unmediated experience of visual media, which is more or less the same from viewer to viewer. Therefore, if the describer simply chooses the correct words, an image will be transmitted directly to the blind person's "mind's eye," where she can then form an independent, aesthetic judgment about it. Speaking for myself, I am not sure that I have a mind's eye, or if I do, its vision is impaired precisely to the same degree as my physical eyes. (p. 93)

Most recently, Kleege has been working with dance productions, including Paramodernities (Siebert, 2019), directed by Netta Yerushalmy, and exploring the possibilities of crowdsourced description through apps such as YouDescribe, developed by Josh Miele. These collaborative endeavors raise another question of interest to DMS: layers of access. By "layers of access," we mean reiterations of information, whether through versions of a text that are delivered in different modes, or through repeated revisions or prototypes.

Amanda Cachia (2013a; 2013b) has argued that layers of access may offer reiterations of similar information, but that we should also pay attention to the interplay between various versions of a text. Further, we should pay attention to the ways that different layers are produced, distributed, and read, since the meanings of a text emerge through those rhetorical processes. Calling this "access as a creative methodology," Cachia has offered some suggestions for what that methodology might look like in practice, writing:

Audio description can become a collective process, with crowd sourcing, exchange, networking, and multi-sensorial narratives commingling to produce a more participatory effect... [A work may] begin functioning akin to a television, with various channels providing instantaneous access to multiple styles, techniques, opinions, and sensibilities. (2013b, p. 280)

In that statement, Cachia highlighted several important themes for AD. First, she emphasized the collective process of creating different versions (consult also Kleege, 2016; Kleege & Wallin, 2015). Second, she noted that the creation of these versions is not simply a process of replication, but a "creative methodology." Finally, she emphasized the attunement to ethics and power that is crucial for critical examination of layered access.

The idea of layers, or versions of access, has emerged in technical communication scholarship as well. In "A Version of Access," Casey Boyle and Nathaniel A. Rivers (2016) proposed recognition of "nonequal" versions, which allow "difference without reinscribing normativity" (p. 32). The purpose, as the authors explained, is to consider access as it might exist without reference to a standard or normal body. Using the example of a building with multiple entrances, Boyle and Rivers imagined that these nonequal, but both present, ways of gaining access, ensure that "everyone can access the building . . . even if through different means" (p. 31). A possible concern with this approach is that it de-emphasizes the ethical questions that might accompany different versions in practice, or what Jess Curtis (2019) has called "sensory equity." Providing different versions of something—ASL interpretation of a speech delivered in English, for example, or an audio description of a dance—is always, to some degree, a translation. As Louise Fryer (2016) has put it succinctly, "Equivalence is problematic in translation" (p. 4). And, as has been shown in digital media and disability studies (DS) work, non-equal versions rarely play out to the benefit of disabled users (Bates et al., 2019; Yergeau et al., 2013). Thus, this interesting ontological point—which echoes much DS scholarship, such as Fiona Kumari Campbell's (2009) Contours of Ableism—has omitted discussion of material consequences. In short, a building may have an accessible entrance, but it's rarely easy to find or located in front.

DS scholarship and disability culture have become so fully aware of the design problem of the "accessible entrance around back" that it has become something of a joke (Ahmed, 2019; Boys, 2014, 2017; Titchkosky, 2011; Yergeau et al., 2013). Thus, as we built our rhetorical framework for AD, we focused not only on its inventive and aesthetic potential but also on material considerations such as who benefits from specific kinds of description, and how those different kinds of description might be accessed. Like fairy tales themselves, adaptive technologies offer both peril and play. Returning to Cachia's (2013b) analysis of "layers of access," we ask, along with her, "Access for whom and for what? What inherent ethical questions and issues of agency stem from these possibilities?" (p. 279).


1 Please see note in "Navigating This Webtext" about our choice to use AD as a general term.

2 AD tools undergo frequent revisions, especially when attached to fast-moving social media platforms. Our webtext describes various sites' tools as they appeared while we were writing, but by the time of publication, some tools will have been significantly revised. In fact, this very example—about Instagram—originally focused on Twitter. Until very recently, Twitter asked users to add alt text "for the visually impaired." But as of this writing, in July 2021, Twitter now encourages users to describe photos "so they're accessible to even more people, including people who are blind or have low-vision" (Twitter Help Center, n.d.).

3 Although outside the scope of this webtext, many other access practices would provide exciting new pathways for DMS. For example, "protactile theory"—an exploration of what it means to teach and learn through proactively tactile channels—is being developed by deafblind scholars (see Friedner et al., 2020).