AD Spotlight: Heart Cinema

Audio describers all over the world are making advances in their craft every day. The ‘Spotlight’ blog series draws attention to individuals who are advancing AD through their practice, industry, and activism.

Image: A Disney animation plays on a television and a man with a microphone describes what is happening on screen.

In this post we focus on the rise of audio description in China, where volunteers, local governments, and filmmakers have been working to increase the accessibility of cinema for all.

As this recent article explains, Heart Cinema in Beijing is an example of such progress in action; providing live audio description for all its films.

“Founded in 2005, Heart Cinema is reportedly the first cinema of this kind. Volunteer narrators introduce, describe, and explain unidentifiable information such as characters, movements, and scenes between lines to help the visually impaired understand the movies.

More than a decade later, more and more young people are volunteering and helping to expand the service to other cities in China and online.”

Lu Zhao

Similar audio description hubs have arisen in the cities of Shanghai, Wuxi, and Kunming, where volunteers perform live audio description each week and sometimes provide recorded tracks.

The demand for these services is increasing. According to China’s Association for the Blind, there are 17.31 million people with visual impairment in the country, which is 20.36% of China’s total disabled population.

Of course, live audio describing is not a simple task. Liu Tong has volunteered at Heart Cinema for nine years. As she explains to Zhau, many hours of preparation go into her performance:

She used to take months preparing for a film. Liu’s first script was for Lan, a 2009 autobiographical film directed by Chinese actress Jiang Wenli. It took her half a year to finish the script. Now, after 63 narrations, she can get ready in four days.

Lu Zhau

As awareness of audio description and its benefits spreads, there is hope that more services, funding, and tools will become available. The potential for collaboration with the film industry is also an area of great potential in China, as in Australia.

“Accessible films should not only be a public welfare action, but also a part of film and television production.”

Han Dongxue, CEO of Yier Information Technology

Ultimately, access to cinema is about much more than simple entertainment or commerce. As one viewer explains, being able to access films has transformed his life:

A vision-impaired Chinese man speaks to the camera. Closed Caption translation: "After I began to know a movie in this way..."
The vision-impaired man continues to speak to the camera, now smiling. Closed Caption translation: "I began to feel that my life is worth living.""

AD Spotlight: Shakila Maharaj

Audio describers all over the world are making advances in their craft every day. The ‘Spotlight’ blog series draws attention to individuals who are advancing AD through their practice, industry, and activism.

A poster promoting Shazacin Movie Night in colaboration with the Alliance Française on October 6th, 2021. Text gives address and states "Special Screening of the South African classic - now with audio description! - eLollipop (1975)."
ShazaCin Movie Night poster

Our first featured audio describer is Shakila Maharaj from South Africa. As reported by Frank Chemaly for The Independent, Maharaj is a trained audio describer, app developer, and avid movie fan working to improve and develop AD as a viable industry. Thanks to her, this month saw the launch of a full audio description track for the classic South African film e’Lollipop (1975), directed by Ashley Lazarus.

With funding from SmartXchange, Maharaj has worked with a team to develop an audio description app. “We’re doing everything ourselves,” she explains, “from creating the descriptions, to voicing them and recording them, to synchronising them with the movie.” Maharaj is hoping to distribute and expand this tool in a way that can assist people consuming and producing audio description.

“We need to remember there are 50 million blind people in Africa and one million in South Africa, and that doesn’t look at ageing people with visual impairment. Research shows there are many people for whom [AD] enhances their enjoyment.

“We’re creating a whole new industry, a whole new market, so we’re busy creating a lot of awareness, awareness for blind people themselves, awareness in the film and television industry.”

Shakila Maharaj

In the following video, Maharaj discusses audio description in a presentation for the Brussels World Summit on Accessible Tourism: Destinations for All 2018.

Infographic: AD in Australia

In the Curtin disability research team, we sometimes use infographics and comics to help raise public awareness and understanding of our work and the assistive features we advocate for. These will periodically be shared on this blog, starting with the one below – which was created to draw more attention to audio description.

Note: all 4 sections of the infographic are accompanied by alt text.

Infographic page 1. Title: Audio Description in Australia. A montage of bright cartoon style images run down the page, depicting people using laptops and listening to headphones. A woman walks with her guide dog, and another speaks into a microphone, recording AD. Image text: What is Audio Description? Audio Description (AD) is audio narration recorded to accompany visual events and media such as television, films, streaming video, and live performances. Why is it necessary? AD enables those who are Blind or vision impaired to access visual media by providing additional details about elements this audience cannot see, such as movement, scenery, facial expressions, and costumes. It is typically provided as an additional audio track for viewers to listen to via headphones, apps, and online streaming services. Audio description is an essential accessibility tool for people who are Blind or have low vision. Did you know? Globally, video makes up 80% of all Internet traffic in 2021. Visual media now dominates how we communicate, learn, and connect. Studies show people are twice as likely to share video content with their friends compared to any other type of content. 96% of people have watched an explainer video to learn more about a product or service.
Infographic page 2. A montage of colourful images depict people listening to headphones, watching television, and campaigning for AD. Image text: In order to participate fully in Australian society and culture, all people must have equal access to visual media, both online and offline. This has become even more important since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Did you know? According to Article 27 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community [and] to enjoy the arts." Additionally, Article 21 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states that people with disabilities must be provided access to information on "an equal basis with others" through the provision of "accessible formats and technologies." Audio description is not a bonus or luxury, but a basic human right for people with vision impairment. Is it available in Australia? The campaign for audio description in Australia has been ongoing for nearly 30 years. AD is increasingly available on DVDs, in cinemas, at cultural events and subscription video on demand. However, television has lagged behind. Until 2020, Australia was the only English-speaking OECD country in the world that did not require its broadcasters or streaming services to provide audio description.
Infographic page 3. A montage of images depict groups of individuals talking, reporting on graphs, and sharing information with others. Image text: What have we achieved so far?
Infographic page 4. Images include a small globe of the Earth and a man speaking into a microphone with 'AD' on it. Image text: The Future: Where do we go from here? In addition to Blind and vision impaired audiences, the Curtin team have discovered that audio description has the potential to benefit many others in the community including parents of young children, people who work from home or multi-task, people on the autism spectrum, film students and critics, and passionate television fans. Further research and consultation with these groups will be essential for assessing the efficacy of AD and its future development. There are also ongoing questions regarding industry standards that need to be addressed, such as: How do we define quality AD? How does an audio describer negotiate complex issues such as race or gender in their narration of visual media? Do different audiences prefer different styles of audio description? While AD is becoming more available on Australia's national broadcast channels, we are yet to achieve widespread availability or see AD provided on commercial television. Legislating audio description for all Australian broadcasters is the next logical step.


For more information on this research please contact:

Professor Katie Ellis:

Infographic designed by Dr Gwyneth Peaty using Canva.

Happy AD Awareness Day!

A gold three dimensional audio description 'AD' icon on a candy pink background
Image by via Shutterstock

April 16th is Audio Description Awareness Day – so of course we had to celebrate!

This initiative was conceived by a group of passionate AD advocates as a way to increase awareness and understanding of audio description in the general population, as well as the blind and vision impaired community.

Filmmaker Juan Alcazar from JC5 Productions explains:

“Audio Description Awareness Day [is a] day where a blind or visually impaired person invites a sighted or blind friend who doesn’t know about audio descriptions to stream a movie or episode with them.

During this time of social distancing we all need to connect with others, and what better way to that than to watch something together? This idea came out of a brainstorming session between myself, Captivating Magazine co-founders Chelsea Nguyen and Stephanie McCoy, and audio description narrator Roy Samuelson. Hoping this experience will be both educational and entertaining. Let us know about your experience on social media by posting with the hashtag #ADADChallenge.”

See Juan’s video from last year for more information:

Do you plan to participate? What are you watching? Let us know in the comments… and Happy AD Awareness Day!

P.S. don’t forget to have YOUR say in our survey about accessibility features for streaming video!

What do YOU love About Audio Description on TV?

Photograph of a man hugging an old television set with the letters AD on the screen. His eyes are blissfully closed and his old socks have holes in them.
Image by Vlue via Shutterstock (edited by Gwyneth)

Blind Citizens Australia (BCA) are currently running a campaign to help show the positive impact of audio description on TV for people with blindness or vision impairment.

Each week, a new video is released via the TV4All website and the TV4All Facebook group.

BCA have put out a call for people to contribute their own stories:

What do you love about audio description on TV?

What would you like to see for the future of AD on TV in Australia?

Now that audio description is available through our national broadcasters, we need to ensure its continuation and expansion.

Send us a video, voice recording, or sentence (or two!) on what you love about audio description on TV.

As we’ve reported several times on this blog and in our research, diverse audiences can benefit from audio description. Accordingly, BCA is encouraging everyone to contribute their experiences:

You don’t have to be blind or vision impaired to submit feedback; perhaps you use AD while cooking dinner, or breastfeeding, or working on a project. Perhaps you find it helps with your learning disability. Perhaps you’re fully sighted and no longer have to read all the on-screen text to your vision impaired loved one. The benefits are limitless.

What are you waiting for? Get filming / recording / writing and send your feedback to:

Bonus points if you include a furry friend!

Introducing Audio-only Social Media

Close up photograph of a smartphone with the words 'Clubhouse drop-in Audio' on the screen and a waving hand emoji. The phone lies on a keyboard, beside a pair of headphones.
Image by Boumen Japet via Shutterstock

Alongside Audio Description, on this blog we have often highlighted the increasing popularity of audio in general. For example, Australia’s recent audio festival and the practice of ‘audiobooking’ Netflix shows.

This trend appears to have spread to social media, as a recent ABC article explores the growth of audio-only platform Clubhouse in the context of the pandemic.

Clubhouse is a drop-in audio chat hub that describes itself as “a new type of social network based on voice—where people around the world come together to talk, listen and learn from each other in real-time.” Currently invite-only, the platform has been gaining momentum as more and more people join up.

In an age of working from home, where furniture outlets are selling fake bookshelves to make people look good on Zoom calls, audio-only is a relief.

James Purtill

Curtin digital anthropologist Crystal Abidin is interviewed in the article, likewise noting that the lack of visuals is actually a selling point for this new social platform:

“Clubhouse came about and said, ‘Hey, this is audio only. No need for video — we’re only going to hear your voice […] It feels like Clubhouse is taking away from all that Zoom fatigue.”

To learn more, read the ABC article here.

We will continue to follow the ongoing evolutions of audio on this blog. If any of you are lucky enough to score an invite to Clubhouse, please share your experiences in the comments below!

Have your say: Participate in our Survey!

On a bright yellow background, the words 'Your Opinion Matters' are centred in large speech bubble emerging from a cartoon megaphone.
Image by Blan-K via Shutterstock

The AD research team at Curtin University invite you to participate in a brief survey that is seeking to gather information about the use of Video on Demand sites by people with disabilities or people who use accessibility features. 

Video on Demand is a relatively new way of accessing television through the internet and is a rapidly growing part of the media environment. We are very keen to gather diverse perspectives on how accessible the different services offered actually are!

The survey consists of 23 questions and should take approximately ten minutes to complete.

You can access the survey here.

Many thanks in advance to everyone who participates. Your input is much valued and may contribute to enhancing the future of Video on Demand services.

SBS brings audio description to VAST

A man and woman sit snuggled on the couch watching television. She holds the tv remote and reaches into a bowl of popcorn sitting on his lap.
Photo by Phillip Goldsberry on Unsplash

More good news for Aussie TV lovers. If you receive television services via Viewer Access Satellite Television (VAST), using a satellite dish, you can now enjoy SBS’s audio description service.

As we reported previously, SBS currently provides audio description for select programs on the SBS main channel and SBS VICELAND.

Now there are three models of VAST set top box that can receive SBS’s audio description service. Information about how to access VAST is available here.

Instructions on how to set up audio description on these set top boxes, and a schedule of SBS programs with audio description, are on the SBS website at

Coming Soon: Australia’s First Audio Festival

Photograph of a girl wearing pink lipstick, lying on the floor listening to headphones. Her dark hair swirles around her head, covering her eyes and the top of her head..
Image by whoalice-moore from Pixabay

To celebrate their 30th anniversary, audio specialists Eardrum have commissioned 30 artists, thinkers, and entertainers to release a new piece of audio each day of September. The result is Earfest 2020: Australia’s first audio festival.

“[W]e guarantee you the best seat in the theatre of your mind.”

Earfest 2020

With participants including comedians, musicians, poets and actors, the lineup promises a treat for sound-lovers everywhere. ARIA winning singer/songwriter Ruel, Cold Chisel guitarist Ian Moss, and satirist John Safran are just the beginning. You can find the full list of performers here.

“Covid-19 has devastated the art’s sector. This Festival allows us to celebrate the power of audio but more importantly support those with the skills to harness it at the time they need it most.”

Ralph van Dijk, Eardrum founder

To participate, you just need to register your name and email address on the festival website. Each day of September, they will release a new piece of audio and email you the link.

Admission is free, but they invite donations to The Shepherd Centre, raising money for hearing impaired children.

VCR Fest: Melbourne Fringe Goes Online

Image depicts a colourful montage of simple 80s style graphics including the text 'Welcome to the Internet' and 'Learn to use the Internet: level 3'
Festival icon / Harriet Gillies and Solomon Thomas

Many performances and events have been cancelled recently as a result of the ongoing pandemic. Some organisers, however, decide to adapt and shift their content online. This can result in innovative new forms of sharing and collaborating with others, and has the potential to expose fresh audiences to content that is otherwise inaccessible for reasons such as geography, finances, or disability.

Streaming Fri 31 July – Sun 2 August, VCR Fest is three days of digital events coming from our home, to yours.

The Melbourne Fringe‘s VCR Fest is an example of one such event, offering 13 diverse shows and workshops that can be accessed from home. There is even a “digital foyer” where viewers can discuss things with others, just like a live performance.

The full program of VCR Fest events can be accessed here. Aiming to be inclusive, they offer detailed accessibility information about each activity or performance. Although audio description does not appear to be immediately available, recordings of each event are made that could potentially be audio described afterwards.

“For accessibility reasons we understand you may need to watch the event outside of the specified time or require longer viewing. While it is impossible to recreate the entire digital live experience (including interacting with other audience members in our digital foyer), we are pleased to be able to offer a replay of the majority of our digital content. If you require longer or flexible event access or would like to know more, please email or call (03) 9660 9600. Please note that we are unable to offer this for all events, and access will not be immediate.”

If you are interested in one or more of the 13 events, visit the Melbourne Fringe website.

Feedback is invited, if you have any thoughts or requests regarding accessibility:

“As we navigate this digital world, we welcome your feedback and ideas on how we can make our digital events as accessible as possible. Get in touch with our Access and Inclusion Coordinator, Carly Findlay, on or call the office on (03) 9660 9600. You can also reach us through the National Relay Service, just give them our number.”

In response to COVID-19 the organisation also aims to develop “a bespoke digital platform to host digital art on our website.” We look forward to seeing more exciting developments!