If you’re blind or visually impaired, I don’t need to tell you how liberating it is to have access to audio description. Apart from the sheer fun of it, you get to hang around the water cooler and swap opinions on the action in your favourite movies or TV shows. The growing popularity of live audio description is expanding our access to shared culture, and the recent Toronto Pride parade offered an opportunity for opinion swapping like you’ve never heard it before.
If you’ve been to a Pride Parade, sighted or not, you are familiar with the carnival atmosphere, often bordering on the surreal. Having attended previously with sighted friends, I knew the kinds of outrageous costuming and wild antics to expect. Attending this year for my first experience of live audio description at the parade however, I experienced it in a different way.
In previous years, sighted friends had done their best, giving me highlights of dress, behaviour and diversity, but only a dedicated describer has the intention, stamina and expertise to truly sample the range of statements being made. The parade is all about expression: costuming, signs, banners, colour, behaviour, or sometimes just presence are all ways of saying something. All of these ways are visual, and while periodic description by friends gives highlights, dedicated audio describers conveyed the entire range and scope in a way I’d never been able to experience before.
Of course not everyone came in four-foot-high feather head-dresses or wearing leather, many made powerful statements just by marching. I wouldn’t have known how many chose to march with the police services, school boards, or public service unions if there hadn’t been continuous description. Being able to hear what was written on so many of the signs carried by marchers was equally important. The signs, ranging from heart-rending to hilarious, gave me a real sense of the diversity of the parade. And with the benefit of admirably neutral delivery, I got to contemplate the message of the high-stepping lady on stilts wearing a short skirt.
The party floats are impossible to miss because of the loud music, but I’d never understood that most of them are adorned with flashily dressed people dancing their hearts out. I hadn’t really put together before that a scantily clad individual dancing provocatively down the street might just as easily be marching with teachers, nurses, police, social service agencies, or corporations.
A sighted friend might have distilled information by telling me that marchers were holding signs with the names and ages of those killed in the recent Orlando shooting, but the objectivity of audio description meant that I heard their names and ages myself, which had a much more profound emotional impact. A casual describer would eventually give up saying, “and there’s another drag queen with lots of feathers and big skirts,” but the dauntless professional describers never tired of giving details of all the flamboyant glitter.
Being there without audio description, I had never fully appreciated the affect of such prolonged emersion in seemingly endless spectacle. The streamers, rainbow flags, feathers, frills, fringes, sparkles and gyrating hips just kept on coming! The continuous description began to create a kind of surreal space that made me feel the whole world consisted entirely of this fantastical afternoon. My hunch is that this is the affect of such prolonged visual spectacle on sighted people too.
Having the audio description offered as a matter of course by the parade organizers created a feeling of inclusivity. The annual Pride Parade in my home city is somewhere I and my blind friends can go, just as other Torontonians can go, to revel in the experience, from the touching to the outrageous. Diversity is something I value in my city, my country, and Pride. I’d never experienced it so fully as I did at this year’s parade.