Dec 07 2020

Professor Hannah Thompson, Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures with VocalEyes, has recently created a report that explores the description of human characteristics and appearance within audio-description in theatres. ITV have since credited the report for directly influencing its new audio-description policy. We recently caught up with Hannah to find out more about the Describing Diversity report and what the research involved.

1. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your role within the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures?

I’ve been part of the department for 17 years. I teach French and comparative literature, and and translation studies and my current research interests are on the role of disability, especially blindness, in French culture.

2. We’ve seen that Describing Diversity report has been credited by ITV for influencing their audio description policy. Can you tell us about the report?

The report was the result of my research on the language of audio description. Audio description is a service provided for blind and partially blind people to give us access to visual culture such as theatre, film, TV and art. I worked with audio-description charity VocalEyes to look at how describers talk about the physical appearance of actors on stage, especially when that appearance in different from the white, non-disabled, heterosexual ‘default’. I found that describers often unwittingly use negative or stereotypical language to describe difference, or, worse, avoid mentioning it altogether because they feel uncomfortable or don’t want to offend anyone by drawing attention to difference. The report outlines our research findings and makes recommendations for best practice in describing diversity for both audio describers and theatres. Much of what is says is also relevant to audio descriptions on television which currently do not do a good job of describing difference. That is why I’m so pleased that ITV have used our report to develop their policy.

3. How did the Describing Diversity project come about?

I am partially blind and I often use audio description services at theatres. But sometimes I find that I am missing out on key information because it is either not described or badly described. As a linguist I am fascinated by the choices people make when using language so I realised that combining these two interests into a research project might improve the way that audio description is done. I also see audio description as a kind of translation so thought this might bring my research into my teaching.

4. What did the research involve?

We used my initial analysis of audio descriptions to highlight some key issues around the problems which arise when trying to describe diversity in inclusive ways. We then used a questionnaire to ask blind and partially blind people, theatre professionals and audio describers a range of questions about how best to describe diversity in the theatre. We followed this up with in-depth interviews and workshops to develop the recommendations. We consulted with a range of stakeholders, including the race and LGBTQ+ groups at Equity, AD users from the UK, Europe, the US and Canada and various audio description providers.

5. What do you enjoy most about working at Royal Holloway and within the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures?

I love introducing students to new texts and seeing how they engage with them in ways I wasn’t expecting. This year I am teaching Alice Walker’s The Color Purple for the first time and this has generated some really interesting discussion about language choices. On a more practical level, I love the vegan food options in the Boilerhouse café – I hope it opens again soon… I’m not vegan but one of my teenage sons is so I’m always looking for ideas for healthy food he’ll eat.

6. Outside of work, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I watch a lot of (audio-described) films and love spending time on the sofa with my cats. In good weather, I also like walking and cycling – my husband and I have a tandem that we often take out for a spin to a country pub at the weekend. I starting having ice-skating lessons last year and can now skate backwards without falling over!