by Connie Bateman
Many of us have traveled on cruise lines to destinations around the United States and abroad. We have often felt that we were missing out on various aspects of on-board activities or shore excursions because they were visually oriented. Some blind or visually impaired people avoid going on cruises because they don’t think they will be able to enjoy them. This article will show how audio description services can enhance your cruising experience.
It is important to point out that audio description services on cruise lines are required by law due to the hard work of advocates concerned about the rights and needs of people who are blind and visually impaired. Audio description services on cruise lines falls under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which covers public accommodations for programs and services. If the cruise lines are under U.S. jurisdiction, they are legally required to provide you with an audio describer if you request one. An audio describer can provide audio description for on-board activities such as variety shows, movies, demonstrations, interactive games, presentations, and lectures. On some cruise lines, an audio describer can accompany you on shore excursions.
My first experience utilizing an audio describer on a cruise was on Princess Cruise Lines in 2017. My husband and I booked a cruise to Italy, Spain, and France. My audio describer, Andrea Okwesa, usually provided audio description for live theater and opera. This was her first time providing audio description services on a cruise. Princess contracted with Care Vacations to provide audio description services. Although we booked the cruise in advance and gave the cruise line advance notice, Andrea was only given a few days’ notice. Shortly after we arrived, she contacted me and accompanied me to the muster drill. Then she provided me with a tour and description of the layout of the ship. We explored the shops, the Internet café, the coffee house, and the spa. I requested audio description for the variety shows, movies, and shopping. The ship did not have an audio description transmitter or receivers, so she had to use stargazing equipment instead. This was not an adequate substitute.
Andrea was able to accompany me on shore excursions because Princess provided tickets for the audio describer. She sat next to me on the tour buses and described the terrain and landscapes as well as the colors and designs of local houses and buildings. On walking tours, she provided audio description of the intricate and ornate designs and colors of items in cathedrals, sculptures and statues, artwork, and outdoor scenery. She also provided descriptions of souvenirs in local shops.
Andrea pointed out that cruise ships are completely new environments for people who are blind or visually impaired. Most of these ships are like large cities, which they must be able to navigate with no information about the layout of the ships. It is important for blind and visually impaired guests to have audio describers to assist them in learning about this new environment. She suggested that audio describers be given the opportunity to preview movies and variety shows in advance to do a better job describing features of movies and shows such as fast actions and unusual costumes. She also suggested that ships be equipped with transmitters for the audio describers and receivers with headphones for blind and visually impaired guests.
Andrea Okwesa is now the director of Sightlines AD, a company which specializes in providing information, guidance, resources, and services to blind and visually impaired people. One of the company’s services is to accompany blind and visually impaired guests on cruises to describe relevant visual elements of the cruises and to maximize the cruise experience for them. Andrea is writing a book about her experiences as an audio describer.
My husband and I booked a cruise to the Mexican Riviera in spring of 2018, also with Princess Cruise Lines. Princess again contracted with Care Vacations to provide me with audio description services. Care Vacations contacted AudioVision Bay Area to find an audio describer for the cruise; they found Bob Loew. When we arrived, Bob called me and accompanied me to the muster drill. We decided that we would meet at the café each day to go over the daily schedule. He provided audio description for variety shows, movies, presentations, and shopping.
Describing for cruises is very different from describing for live theater. For live theater, the describer is given the opportunity to prepare in advance by being given the scripts, being able to preview the shows, and taking notes on each aspect of the show. On cruises, everything is in the moment, so the audio describer has to be much more alert to perceive accurately what’s happening and to make intelligent choices about what to describe. The variety shows were especially challenging because there was singing and dancing, costumes, and lighting and scene changes.
Before describing the shows, Bob spoke with the theater staff to ask if he could watch the shows after the early dinner seating so that he would be adequately prepared to describe the shows. The staff was very cooperative; Bob was allowed to set up his equipment in the control booth in the theater and take notes on the show. Care Vacations told Bob that he would be expected to arrive on board fully equipped with audio description equipment. They gave him a stipend, so he reached out to specialty companies and used it to purchase a transmitter and receivers.
Bob was able to accompany me on shore excursions. He described the scenery, the landscape and terrain, and various buildings we passed. On walking tours, he described such things as architectural styles and details, and clothing and souvenirs in shops. Bob noted that the shore excursions were easier to describe because there was time to pick and choose what he would describe as we were passing them on the bus. There was also time for me to ask questions.
My husband and I took a Caribbean cruise in the winter of 2018 with a group of friends through Celebrity Cruise Lines. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Bob Loew would be the audio describer for our group. Bob reserved a room so we could meet with him as a group and discuss what we would like him to describe. He provided audio description for variety shows, movies, presentations, and trivia games. Bob was able to accompany us on shore excursions, too. One day, he went with half the group to assist them in interacting with dolphins.
For this cruise, a member of the purser’s office staff was his point of contact. Bob informed the staffer that he would be providing audio description services to blind and visually impaired guests. He was given an ID badge and a pager. Then he spoke with the theater’s technical staff to discuss frequencies and transmissions so that the audio description would not interfere with their transmissions. For on-board lectures, he did the descriptions from one side of the theater in order to have a better view of the items being projected on the screen.
Joel Snyder, founder and senior consultant for the Audio Description Project of the American Council of the Blind and president of Audio Description Associates, LLC, provided audio description services to guests on Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines — which included cruises to the Caribbean, Alaska, and the Panama Canal. Joel provided guests with tours of the cruise ships. He described lectures, presentations, variety shows, karaoke, shopping, exercise classes, and interactive games. Braille menus were not always available, so Joel read them to the guests.
Joel had to obtain tickets for himself to accompany the guests on shore excursions. On the excursions, he described such things as statues, spectacular scenery, and jewelry and souvenirs in gift shops. He mentioned that ACB’s Audio Description Project (ADP) has been working on developing a certification process for audio describers. Now that cruise lines are up and running again, we should find out to what extent cruise lines are currently providing audio description services.
Jan Stankus, a retired audio describer for the Media Access Group of WGBH in Boston, was hired to provide audio description services on Disney Cruise Lines. The guests booked the cruise and requested an audio describer in advance. She requested deck plans, maps, photos, and videos of theatrical performances with scripts. Jan was given an opportunity to visit the ship in Florida prior to the cruise. She went on a three-day cruise and was given a tour of the ship, and took photos and notes.
Jan explained to Disney the type of equipment she would need, so the technician was able to acquire transmitters. He also acquired a portable transmitter for activities on deck as well as receivers, headsets, microphones, extra batteries, and music stands for her to read her scripts to describe performances.
Shortly after the guests arrived, Jan went to greet them. When guests had specific needs or requests, they could inform someone in Guest Services, and they would notify Jan. She described live theater performances, a puppet show, variety shows, and dance parties. The Disney movies already had audio description. Jan recorded descriptions of various points of interest on the ship in advance, such as the whirlpools, the medical facilities, the gift shops, the day care center, cafes, pubs, restaurants, the spa, and the game room. The audio files were given to Disney Cruise Lines and uploaded onto handheld devices. Crew members also recorded and uploaded the daily itineraries and menus for different restaurants.
The Disney contract did not include Jan accompanying guests and providing audio description on shore excursions. She suggested that this should be included in future contracts. She found the points of interest technology very valuable, and stated that this should be implemented on other cruise lines.
Here are a few tips and suggestions for requesting an audio describer for a cruise. Book the cruise several months in advance. As soon as you know the dates of the cruise and which ship you will be sailing on, contact the cruise line to request an audio describer. Some cruise lines go through a third party such as Care Vacations. Ideally, the cruise line will contact companies that specialize in providing audio description services. When an audio describer is found, the cruise line should notify you. Ask what is included in the audio describer’s contract. For example, ask what the expectations are for audio description services on board the ship. Find out if the audio describer will be provided with tickets to accompany you on shore excursions. The person providing this service should be a trained and experienced audio describer.
Now that you know that you can request an audio describer for a cruise, I hope you will consider requesting one. Happy cruising!