Metro-East News

This group helps blind people ‘see’ what’s going on during the show

They make sure blind people can 'see' the stage

MindsEye, based in Belleville, Illinois, has started a new audio description service to help blind people enjoy attending a play in a St. Louis, Missouri, theater or show such as Disney on Ice.
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MindsEye, based in Belleville, Illinois, has started a new audio description service to help blind people enjoy attending a play in a St. Louis, Missouri, theater or show such as Disney on Ice.

Sometimes in a play, actors will move quietly to sneak up on someone. Or they may change costumes or enter a new stage set.

That’s not a problem for most theater patrons. But if you are blind, there can be some confusion.

That’s where MindsEye comes to the rescue. The Belleville-based group that has been helping blind persons hear news articles read over other radio since 1973 has a new way for blind persons to enjoy a play or show such as Disney on Ice.

It’s called an audio description service.

Here’s how it works:

▪  Blind theater patrons wear a headset during the show and listen to a MindsEye volunteer who is an “audio describer.” The volunteer is usually perched in the light and sound booth.

▪  During the play, the volunteer will talk about costumes, set pieces and sight gags without interrupting the dialogue. Before the show, the audio describer will read from the program, give listeners background information about the show or describe the set. A second volunteer will monitor the headsets to make sure they are working correctly.

“We began offering this service because we saw this need. People who are blind attend theater productions but there’s a lot that they’re missing,” said Amelia Christ, the community outreach coordinator for MindsEye. “There’s a lot that is visual, and it’s something that people who are sighted don’t always realize because we take in these visuals without thinking about it.

There’s a lot that is visual and it’s something that people who are sighted don’t always realize because we take in these visuals without thinking about it.

Amelia Christ of MindsEye

“A great exercise is to close your eyes and experience theater and you realize that you have to whisper to the person next to you, ‘What’s going on?’ And we want people who are blind to have that independence of going to the theater and appreciating everything right along their sighted peers.”

The service, which began in September, is free with the purchase of a show ticket. The next shows will be for “A Christmas Carol” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, or the Rep, on the campus of Webster University in Webster Groves, Mo., on Dec. 15 and Dec. 23.

For other upcoming shows that will feature the service in 2017, go to mindseyeradio.org, click on about and then calendar. Call 618-394-6444 for more information.

Ameren Illinois, Lighthouse for the Blind St. Louis and the Vatterott Foundation in St. Louis donated money to help pay for the equipment for the audio description service, Christ said. Also, the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis provided the platform for hosting the MindsEye fundraising campaign.

Christ said the audio description service is especially helpful for blind people attending a play like “A Christmas Carol.”

“The story involves a lot of visuals with the different ghosts of Christmas Past and Present and Future, and so all of those coming to visit Ebenezer Scrooge are very visual episodes that rely on his reactions and not a lot of dialogue,” she said.

Dr. Cheryl Bergin, an optometrist from Valley Park, Mo., will be one of the MindsEye audio describers for “A Christmas Carol.”

A lot of times you feel powerless because there is only so much you can do with prisms, lights and magnifiers but this is something that you know immediately they are benefiting from.

Dr. Cheryl Bergin, a MindsEye volunteer

Bergin, who received three days of audio description training over the summer, often works with patients who have diminishing eyesight. So with her medical training and her longtime interest in the performing arts, she found the audio description service to be a great fit for her background.

“A lot of times you feel powerless because there is only so much you can do with prisms, lights and magnifiers but this is something that you know immediately they are benefiting from,” Bergin said of the visually impaired persons who attend the shows with the audio description service.

Bergin is known as “Dr. Sparkle” to her listeners because she wants to help them keep the “sparkle” in their eyes.

Along with volunteering for the audio description service, Bergin reads health and fitness articles that are recorded for MindsEye clients to listen.

Another MindsEye volunteer, Susan Bolen of Belleville, has about 15 years of experience in describing plays in venues such as the Rep and the Muny.

“It just enhances their enjoyment,” Bolen said of the patrons who use the headsets.

Bolen also reads St. Louis magazine articles for MindsEye listeners.

Bolen called MindsEye a “hidden gem” in Belleville. The organization is located on the grounds of the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows and has over 200 volunteers.

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