Through Healing Arts Initiative and TDF, Programs Bring Broadway to the Visually Impaired

By Benjamin Solomon
02 Dec 2013

Despite growing government support, like the Americans with Disabilities Act, and advocacy groups, like The Alliance for the Inclusion in the Arts, live AD is still in the minority. In addition to HAI's Describe! program, only six of the nearly 50 shows currently on Broadway offer pre-recorded AD services. And those six shows, Wicked, Newsies, Mamma Mia!, The Lion King, Jersey Boys, and The Book of Mormon, are some of the longest running and highest grossing in New York, hinting that producers' reluctance to invest in pre-recorded AD — let alone live description — may relate to Broadway's general unpredictability and already high costs.

This is an issue, argue HAI's live describers, who feel their work is now a vital and important service. "If you've ever been to more than one performance of a production, you will know that every night is different. Being there in person is the best way to accurately reflect what is happening on stage," said Laura Congleton, an HAI and TDF describer who has been providing a variety of audio description services to the blind for the last 21 years.

She said she has been disappointed in what she sees as a decrease in the number of shows utilizing live description, opting instead for the pre-recorded tapes which synch with lighting and sound cues. She also pointed out that the wireless headsets used during performances haven't been updated in two decades. "I'd love for the theatres to start reaching out to us, rather than us having to knock on their doors," she lamented.

The Fleishers agree, noting that the live descriptions they enjoyed at a production of Nice Work If You Can Get It "were so detailed and vivid."

"[HAI] paint the stage with [their] words, and it means so very much to those like me who have no visible colors anymore," Stacy Fleisher said.

The couple say that good descriptions can change the whole experience for them. "Without these wonderful descriptions, I usually miss so much," admitted Stacy. "But with it, I feel like I miss almost nothing. It really makes it such a beautiful experience."