This summer’s Tokyo Olympics were memorable for many reasons: the event took place during a state of emergency in Japan after having been postponed for a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic; the Olympics debuted new sports like skateboarding, surfing, sport climbing, and karate; and the games were an opportunity for countries around the world to gather, compete, and display the Olympic spirit.

Descriptive Video Works was proud to provide live Audio Description (AD) for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics for our partners at NBCUniversal and the live AD for the Paralympics for the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC). 

Our team of describers – Jeff Heck, Tony Ambrogio, Norma Wick, Sarah Mennell, and Darla Biccum – described Olympic and Paralympic events happening on the other side of the world, in the middle of the night. The NBCUniversal team was based in Stamford, Connecticut, and the CBC team was located in Toronto, Ontario. Aside from providing the live AD for all primetime events, the Stamford-based team dealt with two tropical storms, Henri and Ida, that saw the crew having to shelter in place while the main road was flooded with four feet of water. 

The Tokyo Olympics were exciting, unpredictable, and a big responsibility for the DVW team. Blind and low vision audiences rely on the rich narration of Audio Description to understand and appreciate the key visual content and elements on the screen. It’s a job that the DVW team doesn’t take lightly.  

In a recent interview with Roy Samuelson for The Audio Description Narrators of America (ADNA) podcast, narrator Sarah Mennell said that there isn’t a lot of room to talk around the announcers, but she tries to fill in the gaps to include information that the audience would appreciate, like the sweat beading on a competitor’s forehead, or the interactions between the athletes that the announcers may not include. In the same interview, Jeff Heck stated, “when in doubt, more information is better.” Our talented team understands the importance of describing the setting, physical actions, facial expressions, and other nuances that appear on screen and add to the overall viewing experience. Titles, names, and text are visual elements that need to be narrated in order to understand the context. 

In order to provide a rich narrative for all audiences, research is key. Leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, Jeff worked for weeks to create a spreadsheet of each sport with the key aspects and the individual athletes to have his own comprehensive resource. Ahead of each evening’s broadcast, our narrators spent hours researching everything that they thought might appear, information about specific sports, and how to say the athletes’ names. As the advance information about the opening and closing ceremonies was limited, the team studied Japanese culture, sports, traditions, and costumes in order to provide a detailed picture of the event as it unfolded. The team also researched all of the participating countries and potential flag bearers for each country. In the end, our team’s hard work and research paid off with vivid visual descriptions for the opening and closing ceremonies, two weeks of primetime Olympics coverage, and a record-breaking 1200 hours of Paralympic coverage on NBC. 

NBCUniversal wanted to deliver “the most inclusive viewing experience possible” and their commitment to accessibility included closed captioning, web and digital content accessibility, and dedicated hashtags #NBCOlympicsA11y and #NBCParalympicsA11y to share with others and to gather feedback on closed captioning and the Audio Description. 

Our live describers each have unique backgrounds that compliment their talent for narration. Jeff Heck owned a video production company in Indianapolis, Indiana, but once he learned more about the need for AD, he pivoted to writing and eventually stepped into a narrator role. Jeff shared his highlight of the Tokyo Paralympics, saying that before the games began he was on Twitter and he tweeted a friend recommending he check out goalball. Goalball is a sport specific to vision impaired athletes, where they compete in teams of three to score a goal with a ball embedded with bells. One of the Paralympic goalball athletes, John Kusky, responded to Jeff’s tweet and they ended up striking up a friendship. Jeff told John about Descriptive Video Works providing AD for the Paralympics, and in the middle of the broadcast John encouraged all vision impaired fans to turn AD on. Jeff said it was at that moment that he realized how important Audio Description is for the blind and low vision community.

DVW Narrator Tony Ambrogio hails from Burlington, Ontario, and has been a news and sports reporter for many years, working in broadcasting for TSN and the Toronto Blue Jays in various capacities. He first learned about AD from DVW colleague Norma Wick. When Tony realized how much AD changed the experience for blind and low vision viewers, he jumped at the chance to get involved. Tony says that describing the Olympics and Paralympics was an honour, and a humbling experience. Tony’s highlight of the games was when swimmer Caleb Dressel won his first gold medal in the 100 meter freestyle. “His emotion in the pool was something to behold. Then moments later during his interview with NBC, they shared a video screen showing his family. Dressel put his hand to his face and fought back tears while his family back in the USA told him how proud they were, and how much they loved him. You do your best as a describer to stay neutral, but my voice cracked a few times seeing this moment.”

Many of our narrators said that describing the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics was a highlight of their career and something they will never forget. It was a privilege for Descriptive Video Works to provide this important accessibility service for one of the most memorable Olympics in history. 

The feedback about the Audio Description of the Olympics and Paralympics has been overwhelmingly positive, with many blind and low vision viewers sharing their appreciation for this accessible programming. If you have any feedback or questions about Audio Description, please feel free to email our team at [email protected].

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