The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, requires that people with disabilities can access most buildings physically, but recent trends seek to address barriers to complete accessibility.
Imagine going to a play or movie and being unable to see the action well enough to understand what is happening in a scene or to follow along with a presenter’s on-stage antics. That problem presents itself often for people who have visual impairments.
A recent lawsuit against the producers of the hit Broadway show Hamilton has brought the issue of audio description to the fore. The lawsuit, filed by Mark Lasser, argues that the ADA requires that the show be accessible to people who have visual impairments.
The use of audio description services started in 1981 and is becoming increasingly common in live-action theaters and movies, according to the American Council of the Blind. The user borrows a headset or earpiece from the theater, and someone narrates the action on stage, including information about the set and lighting, for people with the earpieces to hear.
“All of our shows have an audio description for at least one performance of the show,” said Meredyth Pederson, Director of Education for Raleigh Little Theater. The theater, which has plays throughout the year, partners with Art Access, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that uses volunteers to provide audio descriptions.
“Art Access is in touch with the community of people needing this service,” Pederson said. “We saw the need for the service, and we’re very happy to provide this service for people to attend our shows. We also have sensory-friendly evenings and make other efforts to be accommodating to people who need it.”
According to the National Federation for the Blind, around 2.3 percent of adults in the United States qualify as blind or visually impaired. That equals 7.35 million people who either cannot see or discern light from dark or who need assistance with basic visual tasks. Depending on the outcome of Lasser’s suit against Hamilton, audio description may become soon more than simply a luxury forward-thinking theaters offer and something required to assist people living with visual impairments.
Another common – and increasingly acknowledged – need is for low-sensory events at museums, movie theaters, and live action entertainment venues. The STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) states that while numbers are difficult to pin down, estimates suggest that around five percent of children suffer from some difficulty with sensory processing.
Laura Speer, the accessibility specialist for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, worked with the museum’s staff to create sensory-friendly nights for the museum. These events, first in August 2016 and again in May 2017, have lowered sound and increased lighting for IMAX movies, that allow people with sensory processing difficulties to enjoy the museum.
Speer said that numbers are not the sole gauge for such events. “We are not using crowd as a measurement of success,” she said of the museum’s foray into another important accessibility option, low-sensory events. For Speer, deciding to provide accessibility services is about broadening the appeal of cultural venues. “We know there are so many people in our community that could benefit from a modified environment,” she said.
Audio descriptions and sensory-friendly events are two of the ways that organizations are beginning to increase their understanding of accessibility for people with disabilities, but they represent a growing trend around the country.
I'm a recovering journalist now living a Renaissance life working as a writer & political strategist. I also am the mom to 2 children, one of whom has autonomic dysfunction & Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder, I write about politics and healthcare in North Carolina.