Gains and losses of watching audio described films for sighted viewers

Elisa Perego

Audio description (AD) is a unique form of communication that guarantees access to audiovisual material for blind people through an additional verbal commentary that describes relevant visual cues. In spite of its original purpose and target audience, some scholars and some guidelines maintain that AD can be useful for other sectors of the population, and suggest that sighted viewers could usefully listen to AD when ‘watching’ a film with blind people. In order to determine whether AD affects the sighted viewer’s cognitive performance and appreciation of the film, and whether AD can be exploited as an integration tool allowing blind and sighted users to mingle when ‘watching’ a film, we assessed the effect of AD on sighted viewers (n = 125, 18-28 years) empirically. Results suggest that the addition of AD to films does not negatively affect the cognitive aspects of the viewing experience (i.e., general understanding and film scene recognition), nor does it dramatically affect its overall enjoyment, whereas listening to AD without the visuals poses some challenges to sighted viewers.

Table of contents

This paper describes an empirical study aimed at testing the cognitive and evaluative effects of audio description (AD) on sighted viewers. According to recent studies on the reception of audiovisual translation (AVT) (d’Ydewalle and De Bruycker 2007; Wissmath et al. 2009; Perego et al. 2010, 2015; Lavaur and Bairstow 2011; Fryer and Freeman 2012, 2014), cognitive effectiveness refers to the degree to which viewers understand and remember the content of a film and its pictorial details. On the other hand, the evaluative effects of film viewing entail the degree of pleasure, general appreciation, enjoyment and lack of effort experienced during the film experience. A successful film viewing experience is at the same time cognitively effective and pleasant. We know that AD is effective for blind and visually impaired people (henceforth VIPs). However, to date, there is only limited evidence on the effects of AD on sighted viewers. Knowing whether sighted viewers are able to cope with AD successfully, however, is relevant because it can tell us whether sighted viewers and VIPs can enjoy each other’s company more often when ‘watching’ films with AD together, and it can shed light on the feasibility of extending the uses of AD beyond its original purpose and target audience. In the paper, after outlining the benefits of AD for VIPs and showing its potential extended uses, we will describe an empirical study aimed at assessing the cognitive and evaluative effects of AD on sighted viewers. Then, we will discuss the results of the study with respect to our original hypotheses.

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