Audio Description Impacts the Whole Family

Audio described movies, television and live theater is considered a service for people with visual impairments. It is discussed as a method for providing access to entertainment and information for those unable to see what is happening on the screen or stage. I recently had two experiences that demonstrate the impact described audio can have on the family and network of people with visual impairments

For those unfamiliar with how audio description works, attendees use a handheld receiver and headset to listen to a separate narration audio only, accompanying the movie’s main audio track. The end result is full, private non intrusive description of scenes not containing any dialog providing the most comparable experience to that had by people with full sight.

The available descriptive track is produced for non dialog scenes in the movie, meaning all previews including any commercials are not described. An attendee can only be made aware of any malfunction when the movie begins. Therefore, the need to either replace a handheld receiver or notify management of a problem requires leaving the theater and missing part of the movie.

My children are still of the age where they enjoy going to the movies with the entire family. Recently they asked to see PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS. Whenever my children are interested in a family movie the first thing we do is check to see if the movie is available with description. Naturally I offer the kids the opportunity to attend the most convenient movie based on their mother’s schedule, in order to make sure they don’t miss out. They usually decline, it’s important to them that I can fully take part in the movie. It’s their way of making sure their Dad is fully included and for this I am thankful.

This makes our recent experiences all the more disappointing.

After settling into our theater seats one recent Saturday afternoon, fully prepared to enjoy a family movie, I anxiously waited for the movie to begin in order to assure the equipment was working correctly. The headset given to me appeared to be the wrong one. However, I wanted to be sure. As the opening scene and credits began I noticed there was no accompanying track playing through the receiver’s headset. All I could hear was static.

My wife and I quickly left the theater in order to alert the manager. I was told that the receivers have changed and the one I was using was correct. The manager brought out another which I recognized. This model had an additional knob that enables frequency selection. We quickly returned to the theater only to find out that the second receiver too was not working.

Once again, we left the theater only to be told that the equipment must not be working. Apparently there are only two receivers.

While my oldest is responsible enough to look after her younger sister, my wife and I leaving the theater interrupts their engagement and denies them of the family experience they were both seeking.

After the two interruptions, I ended up with no descriptive audio. The Regal Theater’s management compensated us with passes to use to attend future movies and assured me that the technician would be contacted for repair. While I commend them for their professional response, it did take away from the full experience we were seeking.

My wife and I planned to see “Salt” starring Angelina Jolie. Since the theater is 35 to 40 minutes from my home, I wanted to be certain that the equipment was repaired and there wouldn’t be any interruptions. I called the theater on two separate occasions prior to the Sunday we planned to attend the movie. During my first call I was told that the technician had not been out to fix the equipment. I was assured he/she was contacted, but the equipment was still not working. This was about three days following the experience with my children. I called back a few days later and spoke to two separate individual’s one of which was a manager. I was told the equipment was repaired and fully functional.

Great, I thought, my wife and I will be able to fully enjoy our date. Based on the times printed on the Regal website for described audio and open caption movies, we planned to attend the 12:45 showing of Salt. We arrived at the theater around 12:25 only to see that the website start time did not match the box office time. According to the latter the show began at 12:15. No problem I thought, the first 15 minutes or so consist of previews so we decided to get the tickets and see the movie.

After getting the DA receiver and headset we made our way to the theater. While walking I turned on the receiver thinking as we got closer I would begin to pick up a signal and determine if the equipment was working. All I could pick up was static. Even as we sat in our seats I continued to hear static. The equipment was not working.

My wife, maybe inspired by the character Salt, immediately reacted. She grabbed the receiver headset combo, leaped over at least two rows of seats and sprinted back to find a manager. (Maybe a slight exaggeration, or is it?) She returned only to have the device once again not work. Yes, again the equipment was not working. Stamp this with a Big FAIL!

I’ve been a fan of Regal Theaters since they became the first theater in my area to offer description. However, offering the service and not living up to the expectation is arguably worst than not offering the service at all. I often recommend the Regal to others I know who have visual impairments. I explain to them that they can fully enjoy movies as they may have done in the past.

I reached out to Regal and I truly hope they will resolve this problem, but honestly I may have to visit the other theater an equal distance away in New Jersey.

I know for some, audio description and my experiences may seem like a trivial concern. I propose that it’s no less a concern than any other accessibility issue such as access to websites, books or buildings. Movies are not only about the entertainment, but there’s the social inclusion from which people with disabilities can often be excluded. Movies can provide the context in which a parent can explain important life lessons to their children or simply be the focus of a family memory.

Recently WGBH announced an agreement with multiple theater chains, one of which is the Regal, to provide more Open Caption and Descriptive Audio for the hearing and visually impaired. This is a wonderful step forward for accessibility. I just urge all theaters involved to be sure to include a maintenance plan to insure the experience doesn’t leave the consumers a bit, ahem, “salty.”

One Response to “Audio Description Impacts the Whole Family”

  1. Sadly, it seems we’re often treated like second-class citizens, even when a service is available to accommodate us.

    You can bet that, if the equipment malfunction affected the theater’s projectors, screens or sound system, it would get fixed immediately.

    Why does it seem that, somehow, when it just affects us, it’s OK to just sit back and wait for things to be done and there’s little or no sense of urgency?

    You might ask to speak with the theater’s owner and frame it to that person in these terms in hopes of increasing its urgency.