Visit to the White House with live audio description

by Jean Shiner

I recently visited the White House with my dog guide and with family. Thanks to audio description, I had a one-of-a-kind experience!

My story about our White House tour began about six months ago. I was told that I had to contact a senator’s office. The office would then put us on a list. We would be notified a week before our requested tour date of our status on the list. I called Sen. Gregg and Sen. Sheehan’s offices (my New Hampshire senators), informing them of the dates we had in mind to be in Washington. Neither Senate office was encouraging about our likelihood of getting into the White House. Later, our dates for visiting Washington changed by a few days. I informed Sen. Sheehan’s office of the change, but not Sen. Gregg’s office. As luck would have it, Sen. Sheehan’s office reported that they could not get us in at all. Sen. Gregg’s office could get us into the White House, but only on the day that we needed to leave Washington.

So, the day before we were to leave I called a Vermont friend and she gave me the phone number for Joel Snyder, a veteran audio describer. I had met him about 10 years ago in Vermont for some audio description events. My friend reminded me that Joel had been involved with an audio description project regarding the White House in the late '90s and that project was interrupted by the sad events of 9/11. Getting back to my pursuit of a White House tour -- Joel said he may have a contact at the White House, but he could make no promises of getting us in.

We left for Washington the following day thinking we probably would not get in for a tour. That was on Friday. On the following Monday evening Joel called me on my cell phone at our hotel saying we were in. We were all very excited!

The following morning we were greeted by a White House staff intern along with Joel. The staff intern escorted us through security and spontaneously joined us on our tour of the White House. We entered through the East Wing. We saw the Red Room, the Blue Room, the State Dining Room and the Green Room. I was able to touch the busts of Abe Lincoln and George Washington. I also touched the table in the State Dining Room. Paintings and statues in each room were described in detail. The intern gave us tidbits of history in each room. It was all very informative and enlightening. Not only did I benefit from the audio description, but the three sighted people with me learned a lot as well.

The standard White House tour lasts about 30 minutes. Our tour totaled about 60 minutes. Other groups went on a self-guided tour. Assigned White House staffers were available to answer questions. We had the benefit of two informative people providing a team approach. Joel and the staff intern enhanced our visit even further, giving us a more complete tour than the sighted public experienced.

The tour of the White House was the highlight of our visit to Washington. In particular, Joel’s live audio description made it possible for me to enjoy and absorb my surroundings along with my sighted friends. I feel that an audio-described self-guided tour perhaps accessed through a visitor’s cell phone (or using other available technology) would greatly.