This project explores audio description (AD) as a rich digital-composing practice. It offers a framework for understanding AD rhetorically, which is elaborated through an illustrated retelling of the fairy tale "The Bremen Town Musicians" by the Grimm Brothers (Grimm & Grimm, n.d.). We hope to meet several goals:
- First, demonstrate that AD is a genre of interest to digital media studies. This goal includes sharing a brief history of AD for readers who may have limited experience with it.
- Second, present a framework for understanding and analyzing AD rhetorically. The framework as presented here has six dimensions: arrangement, assumptions, embodiment, frame, thickness, and tools. However, we emphasize that this is not meant to be an exhaustive list of dimensions of AD. We hope others will take up and add to this framework as work in critical access studies and digital media studies continues to evolve.
- Third, though discussion of the framework and the illustrated fairy tale, highlight some of the complex technical and ethical questions that enter into various applications of AD. Throughout, we argue that questions of power and privilege should be centered (not just gestured toward or acknowledged) in explorations of adaptive technology carried out by scholars in digital media studies.
We chose "The Bremen Town Musicians" as our focal narrative because of its rich implications for disability studies (DS) in general and AD in particular.1 In Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimms' Fairy Tales, Ann Schmiesing (2014) described "The Bremen Town Musicians" as an "aging animal tale":
[in this type of tale,] domestic animals are no longer wanted by their masters because old age has rendered them incapable of performing physical labor. The protagonists in these tales prevail because, in spite of their age-related impairments, they cleverly use their bodies to their advantage and work together with other disabled characters to achieve the peace and contentment they desire. (p. 172)
"The Bremen Town Musicians" features four aged animals considered useless for labor, who band together through mutual identification of their creative potential. This particular fairy tale hinges upon several key moments in which the characters rely on one another to describe and interpret information not equally available to all. The rooster describes a house in the distance from the vantage point of a tall tree, the donkey describes a dinner scene through a window only he can peer through, and a robber investigating a scene of disruption mistakenly describes the four animals as a witch, a man, a monster, and a judge. Thus, description of visual information (and in particular, its interpretive elements) is already a key component of the tale itself, and one that we want to draw out through the story content we've selected, as well as how we present and theorize this content.
Fairy tales offer rich possibilities for exploring acts of communication across multiple media channels. These tales are highly structural, generally culturally familiar, and have a long history of transfer across media. As a parallel example, we highlight Molly Bang's (1991) work in Picture This: How Pictures Work, which drew on "Little Red Riding Hood" as illustrated through simple geometric shapes in order to demonstrate principles of visual rhetoric in illustration and design. Like Bang, we use a familiar fairy tale as a foundation for concretely demonstrating the design principles we discuss. More extensively, the Routledge Companion to Media and Fairy-Tale Cultures (Greenhill et al., 2018) traces fairy tales' development into expressive genres such as comics, television, and video games, as well as into multifaceted discussions around contemporary culture and identity, including disability.
In summary, the combination of fairy-tale scholarship, disability studies, and multimedia composing offers a unique opportunity to explore aspects of AD that build upon current work in digital-media studies (DMS). The next section turns to a close examination of the ways that AD can expand conversations in DMS, particularly when principles from disability studies—and critical access studies—are centered.
1 Our project is further informed by the work of Sara Cleto, Brittany Warman, and Derek Newman-Stille (n.d.) on fairy tales and disability in venues such as Through the Twisted Woods, a blog for reimagining folk narrative through the lenses of disability and other marginalized identities, and The Carterhaugh School for Folklore and the Fantastic, through which they presented a lecture on disability and sci-fi/fantasy in collaboration with Uncanny Magazine (Cleto et al., 2017). We also want to highlight studies at the intersections of fairy tales and disability studies by Sara Cleto (2018), Amanda Leduc (2020), and Hans-Jörg Uther (1981).