Check out the side balcony the next time you’re at Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh for a show. If you spot what looks like the broadcast team for Monday Night Football up there, it’s gotta be a crew from Arts Access of Wake County, describing the action on stage to audience members who are blind.
This is what access means–not just parking spaces and wheelchair ramps, but imaginative ways of helping people with a physical or mental impairment do a job or enjoy life. Arts Access was recently recognized for its work by Universal Disability Advocates along with one of its ace volunteers, The Indendepent’s own classical-music critic, Elizabeth Kahn.
Arts Access runs workshops for theater groups on ways to make their programs available to the handicapped, and it provides wheelchairs to theaters. Its niftiest work, though, has to be what’s called “audio description.” That’s Elizabeth Kahn’s specialty. Before, after and–here’s the tricky part–during a play, she and her cohorts help people who are blind or visually impaired “see” what’s happening while they’re listening to the dialogue.
Using an FM transmitter, Kahn and a sidekick will provide the verbal equivalent of program notes and a running description of the sets, costume changes and stage action to anyone who’s picked up an earpiece in the lobby prior to curtain. One does the play-by-play, as it were, the other, the color commentary.
“You squeeze it in between the lines,” Kahn says. Sometimes it’s easy. Madama Butterfly, for example, an opera she did recently, has lots of long, tragic pauses and gestures. Piece of cake. Sometimes it’s just a gas. In La Cage aux Folles, a gay farce, “every time the lead character came out he was wearing a different outrageous costume, and about all you had time to say was, this one’s diamond-studded, or he’s got a hat with ostrich plumes, or now he’s in a feather boa.”
Arts Access gets modest grants from the City of Raleigh and Wake County to do about 30 shows at year, mainly at Memorial Auditorium or Raleigh Little Theater. Their fee? Two hundred dollars per show for a three-person crew (the third handles the set-up and lobby) plus use of the equipment.
They’d love to do more, Kahn says, but there’s a fundamental problem. Blind folks have no idea this kind of service could be available to them if they asked for it–so they don’t. And cash-poor theater troupes, while they’d chip in some money if anyone asked, aren’t eager to pay otherwise. “It’s a vicious cycle,” she says, one she’s trying to help break by getting out and talking to organizations with ties to the visually impaired whenever she can.
Kahn got started on this because, until she was in graduate school, her eyesight was severely impaired by congenital cataracts. Finally, technological advances made corrective surgery possible. But she still remembers the miserable experience of being snubbed, or accused of snubbing people herself, because she just couldn’t see them.
She’d like to see more local governments and businesses (ophthalmologists, for instance) support audio-description services at a wide range of events from movies to parades, as is done elsewhere in the country.
“But first, the members of the blind and low-vision community have to get organized and ask that their needs be met,” Kahn says. “It’s up to us to take the ball and run with it.”