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Audio Describers Tell It Like It Is

28 March 2014

Cambridge United’s audio description service brings games to life for blind and partially sighted supporters

A few minutes before kick-off, Neil Cornwell starts talking into the microphone of his headset, and people scattered around the R Costings Abbey Stadium start listening. Neil describes the conditions, lists the team line-ups and tells his listeners where different sections of the ground lie in relation to his position in the main stand’s press area.

As the game progresses and United and Wrexham players struggle to break a frustrating deadlock that results in a bleak 0-0 draw, Neil describes the play in exhaustive and precise detail. Listeners are told exactly where the ball is, which way it’s heading and who’s involved, so they can gain an accurate picture of the ebb and flow of the game.

Neil is not, strictly speaking, a football commentator. A more accurate term for his role is ‘describer’, for he is one of a group of volunteers who provide audio descriptions of Cambridge United home matches for blind and partially sighted supporters.

Those supporters or their sighted guides – whether U’s fans or followers of the away team – pick up shortwave radio receivers from the club offices before a game and tune in to a description that brings the action alive. It’s a service that’s offered by precious few football clubs in this country – the number is less than 35, it’s thought – and even fewer outside the top four leagues.

‘There aren't many non-league clubs who offer audio description, and there’ll be even fewer when the U’s are promoted,’ jokes Nick Parker, an ex-Cambridge Fans United Trust Board member who oversaw the setting up of the scheme and co-ordinates its growing band of volunteers.

‘Fifteen volunteers have been trained in audio description since CFU set the scheme up in January 2012. We have a strong roster of describers, and they cover all United’s home games.’

Nick outlines the beginnings of the Cambridge United scheme, which received its initial impetus from a taster day organised by CFU as part of its work in the disability element of the Kick It Out campaign.

The day, organised by Nick and Helen Dyson, at the time the manager of the Cambridge United Youth & Community Trust’s Learning Centre, was attended by volunteer listeners, provided by the local charity Cam Sight, and trained audio describers from Peterborough United. The Royal National Institute of Blind People, through its Soccer Sight programme, provided the equipment, and the day was an unqualified success.

Next, Helen contacted Phil Pethybridge, a lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University who co-ordinates the audio description service at Ipswich Town. After a few high-octane coffees with Nick in a Cambridge café, Phil agreed to train the first set of volunteers, and the scheme was off and running.

‘We’re indebted to Helen for being such a driving force, to Phil for that training and to the Posh audio description team,’ says Nick. ‘Without them we wouldn’t be where we are today.
‘Audio description is a specialised and demanding job – describers are talking all the time, unlike TV or radio commentators – but our listeners tell us we’re doing a great job.’

As the Wrexham game reaches the midway point of the first half, Neil Cornwell hands over to fellow describer Raj Khandaker. Raj, whose first descriptions formed the volunteering element of his Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme commitments, mirrors Neil’s skill, enthusiasm and dedication to the task.

‘What do I get out of it? The knowledge and satisfaction that I’m helping people,’ says Raj as the two describers rest their vocal cords during the half-time break. Neil adds: ‘It’s great to get really positive feedback from both home and away supporters.’

The search is on for more describers who want to experience the same satisfaction in a job well done as Neil and Raj. Potential volunteer describers should contact Nick Parker on or 07929 589925.

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