My Experience Viewing a Presidential Inauguration with Audio Description for the First Time

American flag flying outside on a pole

Every four years on January 20, millions of Americans watch with great interest as the Presidential Inauguration takes place. As someone who is blind, I was excited to watch this year’s ceremony not only because of its historical significance, but also for another special reason. About a week before the 2021 Inauguration, I got word that the ceremony would be offered with live audio description. Simply put, audio description is additional commentary specifically for viewers who are blind or visually impaired. A narrator describes visuals, such as what people are wearing, facial expressions, and any other scenes. Audio description is available for many movies, TV shows, theatre performances, and museum tours. This was not by any means the first time a Presidential Inauguration was audio described. In previous years, viewers could only access live audio description of the ceremony on TV stations like PBS or ABC through the Secondary Audio Programming (SAP) channel. Unfortunately, many viewers, including myself, could not listen to the audio description simply because locating the SAP channel was inaccessible.

This year was a completely different story! For the first time, the Inauguration was audio described live on YouTube. Other events, like the COVID-19 National Memorial and the Parade Across America, were also audio described. On Inauguration Day, I eagerly opened the Biden-Harris Inaugural website. What struck me was how easy it was to find the accessibility options, which were all located on a single page. The page was dedicated specifically to accessibility, and listed all the links where viewers could watch the YouTube feeds with audio description or closed captioning. As soon as I clicked on the video, I heard two very familiar voices describing as dignitaries and other officials took their places and the U.S. Army Band performed prior to the start of the ceremony. Bridget Melton and Martin Wild have described numerous theatre performances in Chicago, and they both described the inaugural events on YouTube this year.

I got a bit teary-eyed as soon as the speeches and swearing in ceremony started. For the first time in my life, I was able to know what was going on at all moments of the Inauguration. From knowing what Lady Gaga was wearing, to the special moment when firefighter Andrea Hall spoke the Pledge of Allegiance while simultaneously delivering it in American Sign Language, to learning about the different expressions and gestures President Biden made as he spoke, I could appreciate the event in a way I had never experienced. For many people this might seem small, but having the audio description commentary throughout the event allowed me to be more engaged with the ceremony. I think that besides listening to the speeches, most of the public talks about what they saw throughout the program. Thanks to audio description, I can join in those conversations.

The 2021 Presidential Inauguration is a great example of how different events can be made accessible and inclusive of all people with disabilities. As someone who is blind, I was particularly impressed at how easy I could access the audio description, literally with a couple of clicks and in a matter of seconds. Still, I know the tremendous effort that went into making this possible. From the audio describers and ASL interpreters, to those working behind the scenes making sure everything ran smoothly, I applaud everyone’s commitment to accessibility. This commitment is going far beyond making the Inaugural accessible. The new White House website has already posted a statement saying that everything they do moving forward will strive to comply with WCAG 2.1 AA website accessibility guidelines. These guidelines define how to make web content more accessible to people with all types of disabilities, and are among the highest level of global accessibility standards. I encourage others to make their events, spaces, performances, etc. inclusive and accessible for people with disabilities. By doing this, more individuals with disabilities will be able to engage and participate equally in all types of events and activities.

Did you view the Inauguration with audio description or closed captioning? I would love to hear your experience! Email me at sandysview@chicagolighthouse.org, or leave us a comment.

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