Taking into account the crowds of millions that gathered throughout the country, coupled with the millions of social media views—last month’s solar eclipse is believed to have been the most-watched solar eclipse in American history. And due to technology utilized by the American Council of the Blind, it may now also be the most heard.
According to the American Council of the Blind, “Audio Description involves the accessibility of the visual images of theater, television, movies, and other art forms for people who are blind, have low vision, or who are otherwise visually impaired.” They further describe audio description as “a narration service (free for the patron), that attempts to describe what the sighted person takes for granted.”
An audio description project through the American Council of the Blind, the Mid-Tennessee Council of the Blind, The Tennessee School for the Blind, and the Tennessee Performing Arts Center provided the opportunity for blind people worldwide to experience the eclipse. The one-hour live stream entitled, “A Total Eclipse—Audio Described!” aired on August 21, from 1:00 to 2:00 pm. Linked through technology and an engineer in Illinois, Joel Snyder, Ph.D., Director of the Audio Description Project, hosted the broadcast from Washington, D.C., while Julia Cawthon, a Nashville-based professional audio describer, broadcasted a live description of the total eclipse from the Tennessee School for the Blind.
The show opened with the hit song, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” by Bill Withers, which Snyder referred to as a “little bit of musical humor” before introducing himself and stating the motivation behind the project.
“An eclipse though, is a rare and visual event. A scientific and cultural phenomenon, and we believe that people who are blind need not be excluded from television, visual arts, or a total eclipse,” said Snyder, who earned his doctorate degree in Accessibility and Audio Description at the University of Barcelona, and has been working in the field of audio description since it began in 1981.
Snyder indicated that the project idea was conceived approximately two months before the event, when it occurred to him that there was an opportunity to provide this memorable experience to those who may not have otherwise been able to participate. Snyder and his team decided to stream from Nashville because it was a site on the path of the total eclipse, unlike the partial eclipse he was able to see in D.C. He said the project was able to be executed on a modest budget—with Snyder himself absorbing the cost for “eclipse glasses” for the students. He made sure to explain that there was still a need for the special glasses, as the definition of blindness is vast. According to Snyder, a misconception many have about blindness is that it always results in “total darkness.”
“Some can see shapes, lights, etcetera,” said Snyder, who noted that the term also covers low vision and legal blindness.
In terms of audio description as an art form, Snyder, who offers training classes on audio description, said it is about using vivid verbs, and focusing on the most efficient way to describe what is taking place. He said that this makes audio description not only useful for the blind. Snyder pointed out that sighted people also use it because through “succinct, imaginative and vivid language,” people hear things they normally wouldn’t pick up on.
In Nashville, Cawthon gave a live account of the eclipse.
“We are in a current state of partial eclipse. We are down to just the tiniest little sliver of sunlight. In fact it looks something like the thinnest of crescent moons,” Cawthon spoke slowly and clearly, as she began the audio description of the eclipse. She used inflection in her voice as she gave account of what she witnessed through eclipse glasses.
She was careful to give a description of the surroundings in the courtyard at the school for the blind.
“Just a faint gray light is passing over all of us. There are probably a hundred, or a hundred-and-fifty of us all desperately looking up into the sky, hoping to see something truly spectacular. At the moment, we have just the darkest of rain clouds sitting over the sun, and it is about to open into a hole so we’ll be able to see absolutely everything here in just moments.”
Snyder remained on the broadcast and engaged with Cawthon, asking questions and providing additional commentary from his perspective while watching NASA’s live feed.
“Are you in a total eclipse, Julia?” Snyder asked Cawthon, to which she replied, “No, not yet.” Snyder then described what he saw on NASA’s feed, where the view indicated totality—the moon completely covering the sun.
“A black ball in the sky,” is how he described the image.
“It is literally dusk here, the temperature has dropped significantly,” she said as they approached five minutes to totality. Cawthon reported that a faint breeze began blowing, which she welcomed, as it was 94 degrees outside.
“There is just a faint rumble running through the crowd who’s here. Other than that, it’s been literally silent,” Cawthon said, adding that apart from the sound of a few crickets and cicadas, everything was completely still.
She continued speaking slowly and descriptively, informing listeners that the colors were changing to a “hazy, deep, muted blue” and that all of the clouds but one, lacked definition.
As the sky went darker, the crickets could be heard more clearly, “They’re musical just like the rest of the town,” she joked as the crickets in Nashville began to get louder.
Cawthon marveled at how though it was the middle of the afternoon, it appeared dark enough to be around 9:00 p.m. She inferred that the sky was dark enough to warrant street lights. She described that they could only see the faintest of streams of light from the sky, and how stars began to appear. “These stars are brightly piercing the night,” Cawthon said as she continued to describe the approaching and passing eclipse.
Moments later, she described how the darkness began to subside.
“Everything is starting to get a little bit lighter,” Cawthon said, and described what she saw as “a crescent sun” when the sun began to come out of totality. She pointed out that the crickets stopped chirping—with the exception of one or two in the distance, as it became “day” again, and the temperature began to rise.
Dan Dillon, 75, a board member of the American Council of the Blind, was present for the event and offered comments.
“It was a very unique event to experience,” Dillon said. Dillon is blind, and indicated this was his first time being part of an eclipse. He said that Julia did an outstanding job audio describing the eclipse, and reiterated the various sounds and temperature changes that occurred within the courtyard. He added that the students seemed to be intrigued by the event.
The broadcast came to a close with more sun-themed music, including Stevie Wonder’s “Sunshine of My Life,” a selection Snyder said was fitting for the eclipse and homage to the legendary artist, who is also blind.