Sunday, June 03, 2001

Alive and well

Few know about devices to enhance shows

        No single human being can fully understand how another human being experiences any thing. That lesson is one I have learned again and again through the years, and one I have had reason to think about more fre quently in recent weeks.

        How does a deaf person appreciate music? How does a blind person appreciate visual art? I don't know the answers, exactly, but I do know that deaf composers have dazzled audiences and that blind artists are counted among the world's most memorable.

        At the receiving end of drama, art, and music, a growing number of theaters, museums, and concert halls across the country are integrating programs to render these arts more fully appreciated and accessible to audiences with disabilities. In a growing number of museums, “touch tours” and audio descriptions of masterpieces are becoming more prevalent.

        While such features are initially designed to bring visually impaired patrons closer to the work, they ultimately benefit everyone.

        Sign-language interpreters bringing the spoken lines of actors and lyrics of vocalists to deaf theater-goers have been present in the Tristate for years.

        Somewhat more recently, the same venues have incorporated assistive-listening devices for the deaf and hard of hearing and audio description for theater- and concert-goers who are blind.

        These are marvelous technologies. The problem is that they require a certain amount of human intervention to be effective.

        Here's how these technologies work.

        Assistive-listening devices are headsets that pick up, via FM or infrared signal, the audio transmitted by the main sound system. If you don't hear well, and you are using one of these devices, the effect is akin to miraculous — delivering clear sound directly into your ears.

        Audio description is delivered by the same sorts of headsets, FM or infrared, but the sound heard is the voice of a trained describer who sits in the theater or concert hall and speaks into a transmitter, describing the purely visual elements of the production. Again, the result is an amazing sense of full inclusion.

        The technologies are wonderful, but here's where the human part comes in.

        Those who can benefit most from such programs need to know they exist and how to use them. Ushers, sales people, and technicians need to know that the programs exist, where the headsets are, what switches need to be thrown so that sound is actually transmitted.

        Before the spectacular final performance of the May Festival Chorus with Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra last week, I was reminded of the sometimes weak human link.

        Through two special trusts, the Stern Fund and Segoe Fund, the symphony offers thousands of dollars worth of tickets to people with disabilities each year. A commendable effort has been made at Music Hall to seat people in wheelchairs, provide assistive-listening devices, and offer audio description at some performances. Yet, the salesperson I spoke with, an otherwise knowledgeable professional, had no idea what audio description was or whether it was provided. I'm a persistent person and knew otherwise, so was able to enjoy that description throughout the performance.

        Yes, music is an art form appreciated by the ears. But how the soloists were dressed, when the Children's Choir of Greater Cincinnati came onto the stage, which section of the orchestra was bowing and other visual details could not have been appreciated by me without the trained describer.

        National statistics tell us that there are 22 million deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans and 12 million who are blind or visually impaired.

        Still, I talk to people connected with these disabilities all the time who have never heard of audio description or assistive-listening devices. Once they learn, there is still a good chance that they won't be persistent enough to find the device they need when they arrive at a concert or play.

        May Festival, Cincinnati Symphony, the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, and a growing list of other artistic venues in the Tristate are making commendable efforts to reach out to audiences with disabilities. To make it work, we all need to work harder to spread the word, educate from within our own ranks and make the knowledge of such programs more commonplace.

       Contact Deborah Kendrick at 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail:


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