Julia Miele Rodas, Bronx Community College
A look into YouDescribe, a free, crowd-sourced video description platform geared toward accessibility.
This article has a very simple purpose: to review a free, crowd-sourced video description platform called YouDescribe, to discuss its usefulness as an accessibility tool, and to contemplate a number of crucial factors for creating a video description assignment as a service-learning project for a community college composition course. This practical review is followed by a reflection exploring the unexpected pedagogical insights that were an outgrowth of the review process.
The advent of single-user computers and the development of internet precursors in the 1980s opened new access possibilities for people with disabilities, especially for blind and visually impaired tech-types. In particular, a move toward digital information sharing helped break down barriers for blind and visually impaired people disabled by hundreds of years of print-dominant culture. In many instances, these access possibilities have been realized: text can now be read in type sizes and styles of all kinds depending on the user’s needs; digital text can be transcribed into braille and vice versa; verbal information can be converted from text to voice and from voice to text; and other forms of data—like geographic information—can be used to render both tactile and visual maps. However, digital advances have also served to replicate existing biases and barriers; more and more, social networking sites, for instance, are filled with inaccessible photos and videos; even text-based data, like popular quotations, are often rendered inaccessible by conversion into images, memes, or GIFS that don’t translate for those who rely on screen readers.
YouDescribe was developed as a partial response to this growing internet accessibility crisis. A free, easy-to-use online tool to create spoken descriptions for existing YouTube videos, YouDescribe allows anybody to add audio description to any existing YouTube video, using just a microphone and a web browser; a video can be described according to the interests of the describer or in response to a request. Amateurs, students, or trained professionals are all welcome to contribute descriptions. Because YouDescribe does not copy, modify, or redistribute the original video, but merely plays descriptive content in sync with the original, it falls under copyright’s Fair Use provision. In a nutshell, YouDescribe allows improved access to video by enabling crowd-sourced audio description. Because anyone can request a description and anyone can create a description, the platform offers an attractive alternative to live describers or commercially produced video description. In addition, because videos can be described multiple times by different creators using a range of approaches, a wide variety of descriptive perspectives becomes available.
When I initially heard about YouDescribe from its creator, Josh Miele (disclosure: Josh is my brother) a research scientist at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, I was enthusiastic to try it myself. Beyond my association with Josh, I truly thought the tool had potential for service learning in my composition classes at CUNY’s Bronx Community College. Because video description requires highly efficient use of language, it provides an excellent opportunity for observing the most salient features of a moving image and for choosing exactly the right words to communicate clearly the visual-only aspects of that text. Describers need to pay attention to what really matters and describe clearly, accurately, and succinctly, good exercises for novice academic readers and writers. YouDescribe’s brief, easy-to-understand instructional videos demonstrating video-description basics would give my students a quick-start to use the tool, for instance, providing examples that show where description is unnecessary or cueing describers not to record over important dialog. By developing instruction around an assignment in video description, I hoped to add to YouDescribe’s archive of videos while, simultaneously, giving composition students useful practice with reading and writing skills.
Before developing such an assignment, however, I wanted to evaluate the process. I decided to test the tool by creating a description for a clip from Moonstruck (the bakery scene). Although material from this film is proprietary, meaning that my selected clip could be removed from YouTube by the legal owner at any time, it seemed worthwhile to risk creating a description for such unstable content for three reasons: first, because the scene is lush with visual symbolism which might be a subject of study in an introductory literature and writing course; second, because the importance of the prosthetic hand in this scene is significant to my work in disability studies; and finally, because YouTube content often exists in this tenuous and unstable space and I believe that blind and visually impaired users deserve equal access to such ephemera.
My first steps were to register, log in, and select a video. Following YouDescribe’s brief, clear technical instructions, well-adapted for impatient learners, I clicked on the Edit/Create link next to the video which loaded a video player and audio recorder. I then played the video, pausing it where description was warranted. For each bit of description, I pressed Record, spoke the description into the built-in mic on my MacBook Air, hitting Stop when I finished, and Upload to insert each clip. These steps were repeated for the separate pieces of audio description I inserted. I chose to use inline description, meaning that the video does not pause when it is replayed with the new associated audio content; instead, my descriptions were composed to fit into the “open” spaces of the existing soundtrack. Inline description is the default mode, but YouDescribe also offers an extended description option that allows describers to pause a video if fuller description is required. Describers can choose the extended option for individual clips by checking the designated box in the Clip Table that appears when a clip is uploaded.
Several times, I had to delete my recordings and try again for a variety of reasons, most often because the clip I recorded was too long and impinged on the existing audiotrack. In addition to deleting and rerecording, I also had to adjust the precise placement of each recording by “nudging” each clip into exactly the right spot with the < and > and the << and >> buttons that are part of the YouDescribe recording tool. When I finished, my audio description of the Moonstruck bakery scene saved automatically and immediately became a part of the publicly accessible YouDescribe archive.
Although I am neither a Luddite nor especially tech-savvy, I nevertheless expected to devote some time to figuring out the YouDescribe technology, but I encountered no hindrances in the actual process of recording. The YouDescribe platform is pretty bare-bones and its ultra-simple design might not be seductive to digital novices, especially those who are primarily visual learners, but it is not especially complex or difficult to navigate. Using no special equipment, without studio conditions or any special instruction, I was able to record an acceptable, if not ideal, description. Although I did have some moments of uncertainty—wondering, for instance, if my work had been saved to the archive at the end, or, confusing the Stop buttons for video play and audio recording—these ambiguities were easily absorbed by this first-time user. It became clear to me once I completed this first description that the creation of further descriptions would pose no technical obstacles.
YouDescribe is a well-executed and welcome tool from an accessibility standpoint. Its suitability as a teaching vehicle, though, depends on the demographic of a given school and the mandates of a particular course. Having tested the tool, I believe that a video description assignment could be quite productive in settings where students are starting out with relatively advanced skills, either technically or in literary terms. For many of the students in my composition classes at Bronx Community College, however, the combination of technical, interpretive, and writerly proficiency required would serve only to frustrate. In my introductory composition classes, as a mandatory assignment, I think video description would alienate students rather than help build skills. As a voluntary project, however, video description could be a highly productive community activity. If end-users and describers came together in a mutually supportive group, without expectations of expertise or the pressure of grading, I imagine students on my campus could become valued contributors to the YouDescribe archive.
A Reflection on the Process and its Pedagogical Significance
During this trial process, I began to have misgivings from an unexpected direction, not the tech part, which turned out to be relatively straightforward, but the text part, where I had hitherto felt pretty confident about my abilities. As an English professor, a writing-across-the-curriculum specialist, and a published writer, I felt confident of my skills; recognizing key elements of a visual text and finding the best words to apply to them didn’t seem like it would be a problem. My feelings of confidence were boosted, moreover, by my status as an experienced amateur describer, having frequently provided spontaneous casual description for Josh, who has been blind since early childhood. When I first tasked myself with creating a video description for YouDescribe, therefore, I might fairly have been described as cocky. I imagined myself easily able to record clear, perceptive, spontaneous description of any video set before me.
The reality was different; what I thought would be an instructive exercise for others wound up illuminating my own possibly faulty assumptions as a teacher, forcing me to experience for myself some of the challenges and anxieties my own students inevitably face when undertaking seemingly elementary composition assignments, and inviting me to rethink not only my approach to a video description assignment but also some of my responses as a composition professor. This is what I learned:
- A high-stakes task—Even though I am skilled with words and was motivated from both pedagogical and disability access standpoints, I unconsciously resisted taking on this task. Why? For the first time, I wouldn’t just be doing an off-the-cuff description for my forgiving brother, but would be sharing finished work with an indeterminate audience. I didn’t initially realize how intimidated I was at the prospect of having my work consumed, reviewed, and potentially disparaged by strangers who might not share my brother’s generosity. Several times, I deleted my partially-produced description from the YouDescribe archive, losing valuable work rather than risk exposing my unfinished description to others. This realization was a valuable insight into the experience of students who don’t complete assignments, who submit inadequate work, or, who plagiarize.
- Choosing a video—I thought it would be easy to choose a video to describe, the same way I have often thought it should be easy for students to choose a paper topic. Narrowing things down turned out to be considerably more difficult than I expected. Part of the problem was my reluctance to disrupt what I unconsciously thought of as the pristine wholeness of the video-text. My sense of aesthetic was strangely disturbed by YouDescribe’s extended description feature and I found its use tedious when reviewing descriptions created by others. This bias, however, ultimately points to a common difficulty for novice writers—trouble considering audience. Was I trying to “help” some anonymous blind user? Was I trying to create a model for my students? And, how were my own interests and inclinations playing into my choice?
- A false sense of expertise—Another important part of what stymied me was a patent unwillingness to allow myself to be a beginner. Powerfully resistant to the idea that I was learning something new, I found myself resentful about not already-knowing-how and reluctant to read the simple and useful instructions provided. Firmly vested in my own false sense of expertise, I continued to have a sense that I could just knock-this-out long after I became conscious that it was taking me an awfully long time to perform what I thought of as a relatively simple task.
- Less is more?—Once I actually got started, I thought the most labor-intensive aspect of the description would be preparing a script: viewing and reviewing the selected video, finding the right spots to insert description, and coming up with finely-honed language to describe facial expressions and significant action. In fact, the language-lover in me gloried in this aspect of the job, filled with a sense of accomplishment. The problem came when I realized my apt words would need to be edited ruthlessly if I wanted to commit to inline description only. In the end, I excised more than half of my planned description, but even when I realized that a more starkly described video would better serve the audience, I felt forlorn at the loss of my writing, regretting lovely, if nonessential details. I am struck, though, not only by this mourning for my lost words, but also by my feeling of contempt for the paucity of what’s left. Even though these are the words that do the job, I cannot help but think that this minimalist verbiage has minimal value. This is the hardest lesson: as a composition instructor, I have an obligation to support the kind of writing that will serve student needs as mature adults and professionals. Increasingly, that means short, accessible writing, especially blogs and microblogs, genres that have had a profound impact on more formal kinds of written text, including business reports and cutting-edge academic writing.
Julia Miele Rodas teaches and writes about disability, rhetoric, and identity. She is co-editor of The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability (Ohio State UP, 2012) and of the Literary Disability Studies book series (Palgrave Macmillan). She is currently working on a monograph—Autistic Disturbances—theorizing autism poetics.