`Audio Description' Helps the Blind Appreciate Theater and Television


WHEN Mary Hiland, who is blind, attended an outdoor performance of ``Guys and Dolls,'' she enjoyed more than the music. Through a tiny earphone, she heard a voice describing the scene changes, the fabric and color of the costumes - and even the moment when a dog accidentally wandered on stage and set the audience tittering. Across the United States, people like Mrs. Hiland are gaining increased access to plays, operas, and television programs via ``descriptive narration'' - a service enabling them to join their sighted family and friends in appreciating the arts.

From New York to Nebraska to Seattle, dozens of arts organizations and theaters are providing audio description to expand their audiences and respond more fully to the spirit of handicap-access laws. In television, Boston public station WGBH and a cable network in Tulsa, Okla., have ventured into this area, and commercial networks are likely to this fall.

``This is the last frontier for accessibility to the arts,'' says Cody Pfanstiehl. He and his wife, Margaret, whose vision is impaired, make a business of training people to become audio describers. ``It opens up a whole new world for the blind,'' says Mrs. Pfanstiehl, who started a descriptive narration training service nearly 10 years ago. The Pfanstiehls' Metropolitan Washington Ear, in Silver Spring, Md., was the first of the audio description services now in existence.

In the theater, visually impaired audience members pick up a small earpiece or headset. During the performance, a ``describer'' in a separate booth watches the show and explains pertinent actions, body language, and stage settings during pauses in the dialogue.

The describer might say that a woman is entering from the left, wearing a crimson-red dress. ``The person with partial vision will turn his head and see the red blob and know it's a woman,'' says Margaret. The describer ``supplies only the missing visual elements, giving people evidence on which to base their own opinions,'' says Cody.

In the last two months, the PBS series ``Mystery!'' and ``DeGrassi High'' have begun offering Descriptive Video Service (DVS), which WGBH introduced in January with the ``American Playhouse'' dramatic series. Listeners can press the SAP (separate audio program) button on their stereo TV, VCR, or adapter and hear description in addition to the regular audio. More than 30 PBS stations around the country now carry the service.

`I'VE been blind all my life, and TV hasn't meant a whole lot to me,'' says Laura Oftedahl, WGBH's development director for DVS. ``But descriptive video has really enriched my life. ... If you're blind, its hard to get out to live theater and movies. That's why TV is important, because the visually impaired tend to be more isolated from arts entertainment.''

The Boston station's promotion of DVS ``gives the whole area a lot of credibility,'' says Jim Stovall, president of the Narrative Television Network in Tulsa, Okla. Since October, Mr. Stovall has signed on well over 500 cable systems (including the Nostalgia Network) to receive talk shows and narrated classic movies that, unlike DVS, do not use SAP channels.

Stovall, who is blind, is planning some SAP-narrated projects with major networks, though he declines to say which. ``National sponsors are beginning to recognize the visually impaired as legitimate consumers,'' he comments.

In states such as Ohio and Nebraska, the use of audio description is growing rapidly for live theatrical performances.

``It's really been working well here,'' says Mary Kay Nichols, assistant director of the Ohio Theater Alliance in Columbus. In 1987, the Pfanstiehls trained a number of describers there. Since last summer, the Alliance has provided audio description to 35 Ohio theaters for over 100 different shows.

``The theaters are eager, but they have one concern - that once they get the service, it gets used,'' says Ms. Nichols. Each time audio description is used, theaters pay the Alliance $75. ``There's a lot of work involved in marketing it and letting their audience know what it is and why it's a valuable tool,'' she adds.

At the Dayton Opera, 10 to 12 visually impaired people use audio description during a performance. ``I've made a lot of contacts within the disabilities community,'' says Peggy Magill, special projects manager for the opera. ``That's the answer - you've got to get into those communities.'' Not all theaters have the time and staff to do that, she says.

Mary Hiland, who goes to both the Dayton Opera and Opera Columbus, says her sighted husband appreciates audio description, ``because then he doesn't have to lean over and describe everything to me and bother people around us.''

In Nebraska, interest is high. ``There's been a turnaround - the theaters are calling us now,'' says Casey Randall, executive director of Radio Talking Book Service in Omaha, Neb. In three years, his organization has gone from providing description for nine plays to 24. This season, ``each one has been a sellout,'' bringing in about 50 blind people each time, says Mr. Randall. A key to their success, he says, is a car-pool system his group provides, which most of the individuals desperately need.

THOUGH many in theater management have been responsive, Randall occasionally runs into skepticism. ``Some theaters think [descriptive audio] is a disruptive process - but it's not. No one else in the audience is going to hear the description, unless they have an earphone.''

In Seattle, the Intiman Theatre has been providing audio description for the past five years, and A Contemporary Theater is starting up this season with seven productions.

``I'm really excited about the future,'' says Jesse Minkert, who heads an audio description service in the northwest. ``Theaters are becoming aware that, under state and federal law, there are some requirements that they be accessible,'' Mr. Minkert says. ``That can be terrifying for those with small budgets, but I'm working to help them understand that audio description is not really costly in the long run.''

Federal accessibility laws do not specify what services theaters should provide for people with disabilities - only that they be ``accessible,'' says Paula Terry, spokeswoman at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). But as more people learn about audio description and its availability grows, cultural groups may find it legally necessary to provide it, she says. (So far the NEA has received no complaints against theaters not providing audio description.)

Mrs. Hiland in Columbus says that from now on, she will go only to operas that offer audio description. In particular, she appreciates the curtain calls, when the voice in her earphone announces the actors.

``When certain characters come out that I especially enjoy, then I can clap harder, just like everyone else does. That's real gratifying to have that luxury.''

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