American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: The Individualized Education Plan (IEP)       ACCESS

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Live It Live

by Martin Wilde

Martin Wilde sits in a booth describing a theater performance. Courtesy of Colette Martin-WildeFrom the Editor: Martin Wilde is a professional audio description writer and voicer based in Chicago. He is also the founder of Arts Access International, LLC. Currently the company is working on ways to improve the live AD accessibility experience through the use of twenty-first century technologies, including WiFi and mobile applications. Please let Martin know your thoughts about any and all of the material in this article. He can be reached at [email protected].

In the summer of 2012, Richard Holloway wrote a very informative piece for this publication about audio description (AD) for movies and other pre-recorded media. AD makes visual programming accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired by describing key visual elements during pauses in the dialog. Through AD, individuals can follow popular movies and television programs independently.

Five years on, I'm happy to report that, although plenty of hurdles remain, media access is becoming easier, and more content is being published with description. Thanks to some key pieces of legislation, people who are blind or have low vision can engage more fully with movies, television, and media on the internet, increasing their enjoyment and social inclusion.

AD can also improve the quality of life beyond pre-recorded media. Our experience of the world and the communities in which we live is not limited to the TV shows and movies we consume. Everyone should have the opportunity to participate fully in society in all facets of our lives, whether in a classroom, attending a performing arts event, taking in a museum exhibit, or going to a local parade or pageant. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and mandates "equal opportunity" to participate in American life. However, people with disabilities regularly lack the information that would allow them an experience at live events equivalent to that of their nondisabled peers. Any event, class, or exhibit may be described, providing a more complete picture to people with vision loss. Although laws call for AD for films and TV programming, as yet no laws require live events to be made accessible. Without such a mandate, the promise of the ADA remains unfulfilled.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that students with disabilities be provided a "free and appropriate public education" equivalent to that of all other students. A student who is not afforded the real-time opportunity to discern the materials being presented in the classroom has a distinct disadvantage when compared with his or her nondisabled classmates. Research has shown that people with disabilities have lower educational outcomes than those without disabilities. One study found that, "Where curricula and teaching methods are rigid and there is a lack of appropriate teaching materials—for example, where information is not delivered in the most appropriate mode—children with disabilities are at increased risk of exclusion." *1 Another found that, "Impairments that affect the capacity to communicate and interact in ways common in mainstream schools can impose particularly high practical and social obstacles to participation in education.” *2 AD should be part of the "appropriate" public education standards suggested by the IDEA.

Beyond education, an April 2015 study of performing and visual arts audiences by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found that adults with disabilities are underrepresented. The NEA reported that in 2012, 23.3 percent of US adults with disabilities (i.e., 6.2 million people) attended a live performing arts event, 14 percent below the share of all US adults who attended live concerts, plays, and dance performances (37.3 percent) in the same year. The NEA also found that while adults with disabilities compose nearly 12 percent of the US adult population, they make up just under 7 percent of all adults attending performing arts events or visiting art museums or galleries. The study did not identify how many of those events were accessible, nor did it shed any light on the reasons for the audience discrepancies.

Given what we know about attendance, one reason may be that people with disabilities have never experienced an arts performance, accessible or not, so they don't even consider it as a choice. Another may be that in the past, people have attended arts performances without the benefit of live accessibility services, and are choosing not to have an incomplete and unsatisfactory experience. Across the board, furnishing this community with affordable, routinely available live accessibility services would go a long way toward improving the quality of life for people with disabilities.

Let's explore how AD works at live events. During a theater performance, a trained audio describer selects pertinent visual content and translates it into audio in real time. He or she describes such elements as costumes, sets, lighting, characters' facial expressions, and movement on stage in the pauses between the lines of dialog. The describer views the performance either from a separate soundproof area or from the audience and speaks into a stenographer's mask or microphone to transmit the information to the patrons in the audience. In museums and exhibits, AD integrates the description of visual elements with the exhibit's posted text. Visual elements include the layout of the facility and the exhibit's components as well as the content. If the exhibit or performance includes touchable objects, the description also guides users' exploration of these items. The description is transmitted to AD users, who listen on headsets, usually provided by the venue.
By providing information about visual content, AD offers a new measure of independence to people with vision loss. Blind patrons no longer have to rely on a spouse or friend to find out what happened on stage to spark a burst of laughter or horrified gasp from the audience. They can walk through a museum exhibit, listening to a description through a headset.

Over the past five years there has been a tremendous increase in the availability and quality of accessibility services for people across the spectrum of disabilities in the classroom, at live performing arts and cultural events, and museums. In the arts many organizations have sprung up across the country, dedicated to increasing awareness about and availability of such services to the disabled community. One of the most outstanding programs is the Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium (CCAC, Its mission is to empower Chicago's cultural spaces to become more accessible to visitors with disabilities by providing professional development programs, accessible equipment loans, resources about cultural accessibility and inclusion, and a searchable calendar of accessible events across all institutions and services.

From my direct observations providing AD at scores of live events, accessibility has not yet spurred audience growth. With more described shows available, those interested in cultural events have a wider choice of events to attend and may visit any given venue less frequently. From informal discussions with many in the blind community, I find that other reasons include high ticket prices, inconvenient or limited show times (often a single performance only), transportation challenges, and lack of familiarity with the experience of going to a live show.

Educational and performing arts organizations face significant challenges in providing live AD programs. They have to do the following:

On the other hand, consumers have to:

Organizations that present audio-described events and performances are to be highly commended. However, when it comes to making the arts accessible to people with vision loss, AD is just one part of the whole experience. The most successful organizations I've encountered offer touch tours or sensory seminars that allow patrons to explore the set and examine costumes and props. They offer programs and theater bills in accessible formats (Braille, large print, and electronic versions) to give blind patrons the same information available to others. The best organizations have policies to ensure that all staff and volunteers are trained to provide welcoming customer service for people with vision loss. They recognize that whatever a person's needs and abilities, a visit to the theater is a special evening out. The greeting at the door, the friendly service at the bar, the helpful directions to the correct seats, the accommodation and sensitivity to the presence of service animals—all of these elements add up to a memorable outing.

Responsibility for audience growth and participation also falls on the disabled community. Patrons must become aware of, ask for, and attend more described events and exhibitions. The call for accessibility has been heard—not everywhere, but in a lot of very meaningful places. However, organizations large and small, nonprofit and commercial, have limited resources. Right now they are choosing to invest in accessibility services. Should they fail to see enough of a return, whatever their metric (and new audience growth and increased ticket sales are two big ones), those services may be at risk.

Here's what you can do. Find a show or event you'd like to attend. Call the ticket office and ask about audio-described shows and touch tours. If the organization doesn't offer AD regularly, ask for it to be provided. Many organizations are very willing to work with their patrons, and they will arrange an audio-described performance on demand if they can, often within a two- to three-week time window.

Organize a group outing. Ask about discounts. Ask about customer service for people with low vision, such as touch tours and programs in alternative formats. If the venue doesn't know about or provide such services, explain what you need, giving the staff the opportunity to serve you as a prospective patron.

At first you may need more persistence than you should to get through to the right person. Not everything will come all at once. But only by working together can access get better. And when it gets better for you, it gets better for everyone.

We live in a time of unprecedented access to an almost infinite amount of information in our mobile, connected society. From education to entertainment, information is a basic resource that plays an integral role in almost every human activity. It should be accessible to everyone, anytime and anywhere, giving everyone the same opportunities. In our human community, we are most prosperous when we embrace and support the physical and intellectual talents of all people. I imagine a world where schools and arts and cultural organizations routinely provide access to their live events or course offerings—their information—any time people with disabilities need it, in ways that make it easy to present and consume. As the ways people consume information and experience the world around them are transformed, I believe people of all abilities will leap forward with a surge of educational, civic, entertainment, and economic opportunity.


*1 2011 World Health Organization World Report on Disability, world_report/2011/en

*2 2010 EFA Global Education Monitoring Report,  

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