Shortly before my second year of college, I received a few orientation and mobility lessons for learning how to navigate with low vision and a blindness cane. These lessons were helpful for learning general travel skills, but I noticed they didn’t get into specifics about navigating college campuses or using university resources available for students with vision loss. One lesson that would have been really helpful is attending events at the performing arts center on campus and knowing what to do with my cane, so I’ve created the College O&M series to share my most-used tips and strategies for learning about this topic and others. Here are my tips for going to performing arts centers and performances on campus with low vision and a blindness cane.
Should I bring my blindness cane?
One of my friends dislikes bringing their blindness cane to performing arts events because they feel like they don’t need it, and because they are worried that people will make mean or ableist comments towards them for using a cane. Since I bring my blindness cane with me everywhere, I don’t hesitate to bring it to performing arts events or theaters because these places often have low lighting and lots of stairs, and also because many of these events take place at night when my eyes are more fatigued. I strongly recommend bringing a folding blindness cane as it is easier to store and won’t be needed during the performance anyway.
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ASK ABOUT ADA ENTRANCES AND SEATING
When I had difficulty walking up and down long flights of stairs, I would ask building staff about specific ADA entrances and locations for elevators so that I would be able to find my seat with no issues. Since I typically attended performing arts events with tickets specifically for students, many of the tickets I received were not specifically designated to be accessible, though there were ways to easily get to any seat in the theater using accessible entrances. This information can be found online by looking up the name of the building and “ADA” or “accessibility,” or by calling ahead of time. For students looking for accessible seating information, I recommend calling the theater prior to purchasing tickets or going to the student involvement office to see if specific seats are available, or which seats will work best.
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Requesting audio description
What is audio description?
Audio description, sometimes referred to as descriptive audio or described video, is an additional narrator track that provides visual information for people who otherwise would not be able to see it. Audio description may be provided live by a narrator or pre-recorded ahead of time. Assistive listening devices (ALDs), which are about the size of a cell phone, play audio description tracks and are provided by the places that use them at no charge. Some productions and theaters also support audio description apps that can be used on a personal device such as a smartphone or tablet.
Requesting audio description for performances
At my university’s performing arts center, audio description is available by request for all performances with at least two weeks’ notice, and many performances have audio description available without request. All of the events I have attended featured live audio descriptions provided by a narrator, and I was able to listen to the description by requesting an assistive listening device for audio description at the ticket counter. While I had to provide a copy of my student ID to get the device and provide my own headphones, it was otherwise free and incredibly helpful for me to follow along with the show.
For many other university performing arts centers, there are specific performances that feature audio description, with the showtimes being indicated on the performing arts center’s website or in the theater schedule. I recommend calling before purchasing tickets to ensure that audio description will be available as advertised. It’s worth noting that it is illegal to be charged extra to have audio description, though some places may require a refundable deposit for a device.
- 8 Myths About Audio Description
- Using Audio Description at Dear Evan Hansen
- Promoting Cast Involvement In Audio Description
Checking for strobe and flashing lights
I am photosensitive and have a neurological condition that is triggered by bright or flashing lights, so it’s important for me to know if a performance will be having a large amount of flashing/strobe lights. Most theaters will post a sign that says whether strobe lights will be used during a performance, though I typically reach out to the show staff directly to ask if they use strobe lights in any part of their performance, and if so, when. For example, one show wrote to me saying that they used a strobe light for three seconds at the beginning of a show and then there were no more flashing lights, while another show told me that there were lights after a specific line of dialogue that would flash for 90 seconds. It’s worth noting that I have avoided performances that have large amounts of lights, though if a show only has a few moments with strobe/flashing lights, I feel comfortable going and closing my eyes during those parts- the audio description typically warns me about flashing lights and helps me to fill in blanks anyway.
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STORE CANES WHERE THEY CAN’T EASILY BE TRIPPED OVER
So where should a blindness cane go during the performance? Out of all the possible places to store a cane, the ground is probably the worst option as they can pose a tripping hazard or get broken easily- or in the case of one of my friends, the cane might start rolling and fall through the cracks in the seating area.
Some examples of ways that I store my blindness canes in a theater include:
- In a backpack/purse
- Behind me in a chair
- In my lap
- Fully extended and against my shoulder (I try to avoid this whenever possible, but sometimes I don’t have time to fold my cane before someone walks by)
- Twelve Blindness Cane Storage Solutions
- Blindness Canes And Sporting Events: Navigating College Campuses
Getting up from the seat
Trying to navigate through a row of people can be frustrating regardless of sight level, but it’s necessary when finding a seat or getting up for intermission. If possible, I typically walk sideways while holding my cane against my shoulder, or I walk forwards and extend my arm slightly so that I know what is in front of me, without having to extend my arm fully and taking up even more space. Alternatively, I use a human guide such as a friend or family member who is at the performance with me and just hold the folded cane in my hand, extending it once I am in the hallway or outside of the aisle.
- How To Be An Effective Human Guide For People With Vision Loss
- How To Approach Someone with Low Vision Without Scaring Them
- How Do People With Visual Impairments Guide Each Other?
Summary of going to performing arts centers with a blindness cane
- Bring a folding blindness cane if possible, as this is easier to store during the performance
- Ask about ADA entrances and seating, as well as the location of elevators
- Check if a performance has audio description available, which provides visual information on a secondary audio track
- If needed, contact the show or theater company directly to inquire about strobe or flashing lights
- Store blindness canes where they can’t easily be tripped over
- When getting out of a seat, partially extend your arm so you can detect obstacles immediately in your path