by Joel Snyder, Ph.D.
Founder/Sr. Consultant, Audio Description Project
(Author’s Note: Article adapted from a presentation at the 2023 LEAD Conference in Boston, Mass., with Kim Charlson and Rod Lathim.)
In 1981, a formal audio description service — the world’s first — was begun under the leadership of a blind woman, Dr. Margaret Pfanstiehl, at The Metropolitan Washington Ear, a radio-reading service based in Washington, D.C. Radio reading services still exist throughout the United States with the participation of volunteer readers; I began working as a volunteer reader at The Ear in 1972 and was proud to be a founding member of its audio description service.
Radio reading services are heavily dependent on volunteers and The Ear’s audio description service was also structured around voluntary contributions of time and effort. Cognizant of the limits on the times of people who often maintain full-time employment elsewhere, audio description was conceived as a service that would be offered at only two performances of a theatrical run and preparation for the audio-described performances was based on the observation of only two or three performances early in the run. Even then, it was understood that optimally, audio description would be prepared with more in-depth observation of the theatrical event, even during rehearsals, and that audio description should be offered at every performance in the run of a show. But the limitation of the volunteer structure prohibited that arrangement. The proliferation of audio description for live theatrical events in the United States and elsewhere has been based on this volunteer, limited preview/two-described-performances model.
So the current practice of offering AD at one or two performances in the run of a show was established over 40 years ago; it has never represented equity and in my opinion can no longer be tolerated. The belief, often stated by the founders of that first AD service noted above, was that the service must be offered to theaters for free or at absolutely minimal expense — if not, the theaters simply won’t offer the service. My assertion is that access is not an add-on — it is a requirement and a necessary cost of doing business — and must be practiced by professionals who are as committed to the success of every performance as each formal cast member. No one would think to ask a professional sign interpreter to provide sign language services at no cost.
What to do? Let’s take a lesson from the former Access Theater in Santa Barbara, Calif., Theater By The Blind (TBTB — now Theater Breaking Through Barriers) in New York City, and an experiment by our own Audio Description Project in conjunction with Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
Access Theater — In the 1980s, Access Theater and Rod Lathim in Santa Barbara, Calif. pioneered a system whereby an AD script is developed throughout the rehearsal process for a show in close consultation with the show’s artistic staff (director, designers, performers). The AD is thus available at any and all public performances on demand at every performance with no advance notice required. A highlight from the show is the “Burger King” scene:
Theater By The Blind — According to George Ashiotis (a blind man, one of the TBTB founders and a professional actor), AD is so important to the mission of TBTB that it must be a part of every performance of every show. Further, it needn’t be an “add-on” — it should be an integral part of every script and a critical part of every director’s concept. At TBTB, every production’s planning and rehearsal process includes consideration of AD from the beginning. How can the AD be integrated within the production? Will we add a “narrator” character that propels the action and also provides cleverly crafted description of visual elements? Perhaps the script can be modified to include descriptive elements spoken by the various characters? In this way, the AD becomes an inclusive process, a part of a universal design concept, helpful and aesthetically viable for all audience members.
Audio Description Project/Arena Stage — In 2014, with support from the D.C. Aid Association for the Blind, ACB’s Audio Description Project proposed a more expansive audio description arrangement for two productions at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. We collaborated with Arena on an experiment: an audio describer (Jo Lynn Bailey-Page) attended rehearsals for each production, met with the stage director, actors, the designers (scenic, costumes, lighting, sound) and developed an audio description script throughout the three-week rehearsal period. The script was then available for that same describer to voice at every performance beginning with opening night and with, of course, an eye on stage action as changes could occur from performance to performance. The describer, essentially, was a “cast member,” attending every rehearsal and performance.
The arrangement had two benefits over the traditional model of audio description development for live performance: 1) time was available to carefully observe the theatrical process and construct descriptive language that was more thorough and considered; and 2) people desiring the service could attend any performance with no advance notice and be assured of access to the visual aspects of the production.
Other innovations included Braille and large-print programs, models of the set and props in the lobby, and a tactile “scrapbook” of costume pieces.
It was gratifying to note that attendance for the productions by people using audio description tripled over levels experienced at Arena using the traditional volunteer model.
I conclude this article with the thoughts of ACB members! In 2022, ACB adopted two resolutions which address the need for AD at every performance and/or as an integral part of artistic presentations:
Dates for Live Theater Presentations of Audio-Described Performances
Whereas, live audio description is essential for people who are blind or have low vision to comprehend settings, action and other visual elements of theater performances; and
Whereas, theaters providing live audio description often limit these performances to one or a few specified dates; and
Whereas, discounted tickets are frequently offered on dates that do not include live audio description; and
Whereas, people who are blind or have low vision, like all theater-goers, have work, family and civic obligations that make attending performances on a specified date difficult or impossible; and
Whereas, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires owners, operators, or lessees of public accommodations ensure that no individual with a disability is excluded, denied services, segregated or otherwise treated differently because of the absence of auxiliary aids and services unless doing so would result in an undue burden;
Now, therefore, be it resolved by the American Council of the Blind in convention assembled on the 11th day of July, 2022, at the CHI Health Center Omaha in Omaha, Neb., and on the Zoom platform, that this organization encourage all live theater providers to enable theater-goers who are blind or have low vision to receive live audio description for all live performances, except when an undue burden can be demonstrated.
Denise Colley, Secretary
Equal Access to Live Theater
Whereas, every live theater performance is inherently unique and live theater provides the ability of an actor to spontaneously respond to the energy of an audience and other performers; and
Whereas, audio description is essential for theater-goers who are blind or have low vision to be able to comprehend settings, action and other visual elements of theater performances; and
Whereas, some theaters are choosing to provide pre-recorded descriptions that may not be accurately synchronized with the live performance and cannot possibly capture the nuances of live performance; and
Whereas, Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act guarantee the right of people with disabilities to receive effective auxiliary aids and services unless doing so would constitute an undue burden; and
Whereas, this requirement applies to public and private theater owners, operators, or lessees; and
Whereas, theaters and production companies may be unaware that recorded description cannot effectively communicate the visual elements of a live performance;
Now, therefore, be it resolved by the American Council of the Blind in convention assembled on the 7th day of July, 2022, at the CHI Health Center Omaha in Omaha, Neb., that this organization strongly encourage, and shall work to promote the use by theater companies of, live audio description as the only effective means of communicating the visual elements to the blind theatergoer.
Denise Colley, Secretary
A final thought: a blind fellow visiting a museum with some friends was once asked, “Excuse me, but what are you doing in a museum? You can’t see any of the exhibits.” His response? “I’m here for the same reason anyone goes to a museum. I want to learn, I want to know and be a part of our culture.” His inability to see shouldn’t deny him access to our culture and I believe it the responsibility of our arts institutions to be as inclusive as possible. It’s all about access to our culture and that is everyone’s right. There simply is no good reason why a person with a particular disability must also be culturally disadvantaged.
Moreover, the principal constituency for audio description in the United States has an unemployment rate of about 70%. I am certain that with more meaningful access to our culture and its resources, people become more informed, more engaged with society and more engaging individuals — and perhaps, more employable.