Enjoying An Accessible Performance of “A Christmas Carol”

By guest blogger Brett Shishkoff

The holidays bring us ample opportunities to enjoy great performances and movies. Last weekend, my colleague at CRIS Radio, Brett Shishkoff, who is blind, enjoyed a touch tour and audio described performance of “A Christmas Carol” at the Goodman Theatre. During a touch tour, people who are blind or visually impaired get to literally feel the different costumes and props that will be used in the performance. They will also hear a description of the stage layout, and in some cases, from some of the main actors themselves. Audio description is a narration of the different visual elements and scenes, which allows those who are blind or visually impaired to follow along. Now, let’s hear from Brett!

The Goodman has been one of my favorite theatres here in Chicago. Each year, they put on the popular holiday classic, “A Christmas Carol.” I have been able to compare this from last year’s performance, and it continues to get better. The Casting of Scrooge is one of the best you’ll find in any version. They also try to throw in some surprises each year, and this time it is no different. Since last year, Fred Scrooge’s niece, Freda, has appears in the place of Scrooge’s nephew. This substitution continues to fit nicely in the show. Freda believes that anyone can change, even her uncle Scrooge who she will never give up on. The show is definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for some Christmas Cheer!

As for the Touch Tour, the Goodman has one of the best in Chicago. They start off by showing us the costumes, props, and wigs in the lobby as we wait for the other patrons to arrive. We then move right into the theater, where we hear about the set and stage layout and some artistic feedback from the director. We even get to walk on the stage to get a better sense of its size. For me, the highlight of each Touch Tour is meeting the cast ahead of the show. They describe what they look like and what they are wearing, and perform a line from their characters.

The Audio Description was excellent. A great audio description of any play is easy to listen and understand – not to quiet or loud. One thing that I believe needs improvement are the headsets used to transmit the narration. Way too often, static or other noise is heard through the headsets used for these performances, which can be a bit distracting. This is hopefully something that can be easily fixed as new technology is developed for these devices. All in all, my experience at A Christmas Carol was a great one, and I am trying to turn this into a family tradition for many years to come. I left with warmth in my heart and a smile on my face. I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday season filled with lots of joy!

The Goodman is holding an additional audio described performance of “A Christmas Carol” on Wednesday evening, December 13 at 7:30 pm. For more information or to purchase tickets, you can visit this page or call 312-443-3800.

This is Sandy again. In next week’s post, I will share my experience at the movies using Actiview, a new mobile app that provides audio description and closed captions for people with visual or hearing impairments. Thanks for reading and stay tuned!

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Making Movie Watching Accessible to Anyone

During a recent outing to the movies, I requested audio description service at the theater. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, audio description is the narration of what is happening in a movie, TV show or play. It can help those of us without sight keep up with what is going on, especially in movies and shows with little dialogue. I had done my research, and knew that the theater I was visiting offered a special headset, through which I could hear the audio description commentary without interrupting other moviegoers. The staff knew exactly what I was talking about, and handed me the headset. Much to my disappointment, however, I realized that the audio descriptions were not working as soon as I put the headset on.

This, unfortunately, is an all too common scenario for blind and visually impaired moviegoers throughout the United States. A new startup company is working to change the experience of people with disabilities. Actiview is a recently launched smartphone app which will provide audio descriptions and closed captions of movies for people who are blind or hearing impaired. Best of all, no extra or special equipment is required. Users simply install the Actiview app on their smartphone, and select audio descriptions or closed captions for the desired movie. The app was recently launched with the debut of Cars 3.

Other developers around the world have been working on similar technologies. Last year, the Disney Movies Anywhere app began providing audio description for some of its movies. Thanks to this app, I was able to fully enjoy Finding Dory at the movie theater last year. For the first time, I could watch a movie without having to worry about whether or not audio description was available at the theater. By using my iPhone and earbuds, I could listen to the audio description. If the Disney Movies Anywhere app is an indication of how Actiview will help those of us with disabilities in the near future, it is sure to become a game changer for moviegoers around the world!

We have seen time and time again how modern technology is providing equal access to people with disabilities. Thanks to apps like Actiview and Disney Movies Anywhere, individuals who are blind will have greater access to the movies. We will no longer have to scope out or be limited to movie theaters which offer audio description. Most importantly, I hope that more movie producers will take the needs of people who are blind or hearing impaired into consideration. By providing audio descriptions and closed captions for movies, everyone will be able to access and enjoy new releases. Going to the movies is an activity enjoyed by many, let’s make it more inclusive and accessible for everyone!

How do people who are blind or visually impaired watch TV and movies?

Disney’s Frozen is available with audio description:  Click here!

Netflix’s recent announcement about availability of audio description for its popular series “Marvel’s Daredevil” brought to mind the also popular question: how can you watch TV if you can’t see? This is a question that I as a blind person often get from sighted individuals. It is still possible to enjoy your favorite TV shows, movies and plays as a person with vision loss.  However, some creativity and accessibility features can help.

By paying close attention and using your imagination you can often tell what’s going on in a TV show without being able to see. If you listen carefully to things like the dialogue, sound effects, etc. most of the time you can tell what is happening. For example, if I hear the roar of a car engine along with someone mentioning he is about to go somewhere I can assume that he’s on his way.

Of course, it’s not always possible for someone with low or no vision to follow a TV show simply by listening to what’s going on. Details like a character’s facial expressions, clothes he or she is wearing, body language, etc. are impossible to appreciate simply by listening to the dialogue or other actions. This is where audio description comes in handy!

Audio description is the narration of visual elements that would otherwise not be accessible to individuals with vision loss. A specially trained narrator announces what is happening when there is no dialogue taking place. The visual elements that are narrated in these descriptions include costumes, facial expressions, physical actions, scene changes and settings.

Many popular networks, such as PBS, FOX and CBS offer audio description for some of their programs. More TV networks will begin offering audio description in the near future thanks to the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, or CVAA. Among other things, this act will require commercial broadcast, cable and motion picture networks to provide more programming with audio description.

Of course, the next thing you might be wondering is how can you get audio description. Until now, the most common way of accessing audio description was through the Secondary Audio Program (SAP) channel on televisions. Unfortunately, because the menus to access this setting are entirely visual, people with little or no vision need assistance from someone who is sighted to turn on this feature. Furthermore, it is very unlikely to find a specific button to enable this function on remote controls.

The CVAA also requires television and cable providers, mobile phones and other communication technologies to be fully accessible to people with vision loss. In other words, menus to access audio description must be entirely accessible to people with visual impairments. Please note that while some cable providers and mobile phone companies are already offering some accessibility features to customers, these and other requirements set by this act will gradually be implemented over time.

Audio description is also available in movie theaters and live performances. People who wish to listen to the audio description at movie theaters or performing arts theatres simply request a special headset and receiver provided by the facility. While audio description soundtracks for movies and TV shows are pre-recorded, live performances are described by live narrators who are watching the play in a separate booth.

Being blind or visually impaired doesn’t mean we cannot or do not enjoy television, the movies or theatre performances. By using our imagination as well as having access to audio described media, we can enjoy TV, the movies and theatre as much as those with sight. Not everyone needs or wants to watch shows with audio description, but for me it’s wonderful to know that this option is increasingly available thanks to new regulations.

The following page from the American Council of the Blind provides the latest updates regarding the CVAA as well as additional resources for how to find programs and movies that are audio described: http://www.acb.org/adp/index.html. Finally, if you would like to hear an audio description sample or are fans of Disney’s “Frozen,” here’s an audio described movie trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7j4_aP8dWA.