What Would a Mandate on Audio Description Mean for Theaters?

A theatre seen from the perspective of a high up box seatQuick update on the disability lawsuit filed against Hamilton the Musical: A Forbes Magazine article this week reports that despite making significant progress, efforts to settle the lawsuit have hit a bump in the road.

Some background: A theatergoer who is blind has filed a class-action lawsuit against the producers and the New York City theater that’s offering the hit musical for failing to provide full and equal access to all theatergoers. I wrote a blog post about this last month questioning whether it is reasonable for a blind patron to insist the theater have a paid audio describer on hand at live productions of Hamilton for people who can’t see the stage, and now the Forbes article quotes the attorney representing the plaintiff saying, “The parties have agreed to the major terms of a settlement, including injunctive relief and monetary damages” and that audio description services will now be provided at the musical.” From the article:

“The plaintiff still wants the show to add information to its website describing the headsets, train its box office staff to ensure that all blind customers can obtain information about the headsets, and use ‘qualified readers’ for its live audio description service. But, the Hamilton team refuses to add the terms to the settlement, arguing that it has remediated all of the requests.

The plaintiff has asked the court to bring in a mediator. The judge is expected to make a ruling on the request soon.”

Mark Lasser, the plaintiff in this case, claimed that blind and visually impaired theatergoers can not appreciate the show without using the audio description service. His case argued that the absence of the amenity violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits Broadway theaters and other public places of accommodation from discriminating against individuals with disabilities.

Last November, the U.S. Attorney General signed a rule requiring movie theaters to offer audio description services when showing digital films. Movie theaters must let the public know about the feature and have staff available to assist patrons with the equipment.

The Forbes article said that “Given the similarities of the movie venue and the live theater venue, the plaintiff argued that live theaters must also be required to provide live audio description to the blind.” But there’s the rub. Movie venues and live theater venues aren’t all that similar. Audio description for movies can be recorded once and attached to a movie showing anywhere, anytime. Live theater is, well, live. No show is the same, so in order to have live audio description you have to have a live human being sitting somewhere in the audience at that exact show to inform guests who are blind or visually impaired about what’s happening in scenes without dialogue as well as scenes with significant visual effects. The describer talks into a microphone that goes immediately into the headset that the person who is blind or visually impaired is wearing that night. If no one who needs the service shows up for that particular performance, the describer’s talents go unused.

With that in mind, rather than require audio description for every show, the plaintiff asked the Hamilton producers and the theater to provide live narration through 25 audio description headsets during just one performance each week. In an interview with NPR, an audio description specialist estimated the total cost of the system would be about $25,000 with monthly maintenance fees. At the time of the lawsuit, only four long-running Broadway shows had made that investment (The Lion King and Wicked among them).

The NPR story reported that under the terms of the ADA, the attorney representing the blind theatergoer couldn’t seek damages for his client and claimed attorney Scott Dinin was simply using Broadway’s biggest hit as an example to spotlight the problem. “We have to get a mindset — how do we increase inclusion?” the attorney told the NPR reporter. “It should be top of mind — equality, accommodation and respect — because once people put that at the decision-making table, all the services will flow from that.”

The NPR story also quoted a drama critic saying, “It only makes sense to spend the money on accommodations once it’s clear a show is successful enough to run for a while.” That quote brings up a question. What of smaller theaters? I go to performances here in Chicago put on by companies with annual budgets that don’t top $25,000. At some point will they end up having to provide audio description as well? What if they can’t afford it? Is that reasonable? I guess the jury is still out.



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