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Assistive Tech Helps Raise Curtain on Performances

Sasha and Janhavi at One Acts

When the house lights dimmed and the curtain lifted on stage at Issaquah High School this year, the action was in the spotlight for all those in the audience to see. Adding to the magic of the theater this year was a special pilot program offering live audio descriptions so that everyone could enjoy the productions, even those audience members with limited vision or no vision. 

“Having live audio description (AD) at the school theater productions has been a dream of mine since I started in Issaquah School District,” said Dr. Jennifer Soltis, one of the district’s teachers for the visually impaired and the leader of the pilot project. “I work with students who are blind and low vision, and they want an accessible opportunity to see their friends and classmates perform. I know how much my students love audio description and I wanted to do this so they could have equal access to their community events.” 

Audio description is an additional narration track that provides information about what is visually happening on screen or on stage. “If you take away the visual component of a play or TV show, can you still understand the action? The audio description supplements the dialog and sound effects to describe what is happening,” Soltis explains. “It's a very different experience to hear what sounds like a door slamming vs. to hear the door slam and a narrator say that the main character's best friend has kicked the door open with their arms heaped full of presents.” 

The pilot this year included audio description of “Shrek” and also the “2024 One-Act Festival.” The trial program was a success, and Soltis says she’s excited to offer this opportunity more broadly in the future. 

“Audio description is a type of access technology, just like closed captioning,” Soltis said. It allows more people to enjoy videos, from fiction to news broadcasts and is popularly used in the blind and low vision community, she added. “The American Council of the Blind keeps a running list of all media available with audio description at the Audio Description Project. As it becomes more broadly available, sighted people are using it too. I've heard people say it's like transforming their favorite Netflix or Disney+ show into a podcast, so they don't miss any action if they look away from the screen.” 

Teresa Cowan, Principal on Special Assignment who oversaw the district’s Blind and Visually Impaired Program, described Soltis's dedication to providing live audio description for the blind and low-vision community as “truly remarkable.” 

“Her tireless efforts not only enhance the accessibility of the arts for individuals with visual impairments but also serve as a catalyst for broader conversations about inclusion and accessibility in other areas,” Cowan continued. “By fostering a community of advocates, Dr. Soltis is not only improving immediate accessibility but also laying the groundwork for continued progress in addressing accessibility challenges in our schools and communities.  We are so thankful for the innovative work of our Vision team and Dr. Soltis!” 

At the “Shrek” performances, six people used the Audio Description headsets to hear more about the action on stage, and during the one-act shows, three people listened in on the AD performance. Everyone said that they really enjoyed it. After the show, Soltis shared that one of the students, Janhavi Balasubramanian, said, "You make plays so much more fun by adding audio description." 

Soltis said she also got positive feedback from the other side of the curtain. “The theater students at IHS are very passionate about inclusion and accessibility, and several said that they were glad that their blind and low vision classmates would be able to enjoy the show, especially students who were playing roles that were heavy on (silent) physical comedy,” she said. “The actors wanted their blind friends to come but didn't know how they could make it an accessible experience. When I approached the director, and later told the cast and crew, about adding the audio description, people were really interested in learning that they could play a role in making the productions accessible.” 

During the preparation for and the production of the one-act plays, students wrote not just the plays but also wrote the AD narration script, Soltis shared. “I presented to Danae West's technical theater class about audio description and how to write a good narration script a few weeks before the shows opened. Tucker Purvis not only wrote the screenplay and directed ‘Sylvester Steel: Feline Force of Justice,’ he also took on writing the audio description.  MacKenzie Wilmot-Wade and Julia Nelon wrote the narration scripts for ‘Zinnia,’ and West and Wilmot-Wade worked together on the audio description of "Holding On."  

All of the live narration was done by students. Sofia Soto Avendano narrated “Shrek,” and Audrey Beaver narrated the one act plays. “By the time of the live performance, all I had to do was hand out headsets and monitor for technical problems. Sofia and Audrey were great!” Soltis said. 

“My favorite part of my job is ‘making access happen’ so that students can engage fully and independently. Theatrical audio description isn't part of my job description, but it falls in line with what I love about my work,” she said, noting that she looks forward to the opportunity to continue this effort with the help of student writers and audio descriptors in the future. “Access—accessibility—is an act of love. The Access Is Love project was created by Sandy Ho, Mia Mingus, and Alice Wong ‘to help build a world where accessibility is understood as an act of love, instead of a burden or an after-thought.’ Everything we do to make the world a more accessible place, from curb cuts to audio description to respecting different religious and cultural practices, is a way of caring for others. 

Sasha and Janhavi at One Acts

 

Audrey and Sofia
Student listens to audio device
Headsets and headphones for use during play.
Jennifer Soltis