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A nonprofit organization enables blind people to enjoy live theater



Iowa City, Iowa – Through a special service, a nonprofit organization in Iowa is assisting blind individuals in enjoying live theater.

For thousands of listeners who are print-disabled in the state, the Iowa Radio Reading Information Service, or IRIS, is a free radio reading service that reads aloud local print newspapers. In addition to being mostly administered by volunteers, it provides a special service to grant everyone access to the arts.

At Iowa City’s Hancher Auditorium on Thursday, Maryfrances Evans, Executive Director of IRIS, gave a live audio description to several visually impaired audience members.

“This is a headset microphone that goes to a transmitter that goes to headsets that people with print disabilities or visual impairments will wear,” says Evans. “And we will call play by play on the visual elements of the performance.”

IRIS collaborates with other theaters throughout the state, including Hancher, to provide this service. “Stephens Auditorium, Hancher Auditorium, Gallagher Bluedorn, and then a couple of other ones upon request,” adds Evans.

Karen Keninger picked up one of those transmitters on Thursday night to see “Come From Away” at Hancher. She has used the service four times in total. “You lose all of it when you can’t see it, but there is a lot more going on on stage than just the singing and talking. Thus, a large portion of it is humorous, and a large portion has to do with the story. But all of that is missed,” Keninger claims.

Evans states that there is an obvious need for the program and hopes to see it expanded. She adds that individuals who use it have limited options without it. First of all, they don’t go at all since they believe I won’t find anything there. Alternatively, they go number three.

Alternatively, they go number two with a spouse, lover, or other loved one, and the loved one spends the entire show whispering to them about what’s going on. Evans claims, “They listen, but they don’t understand the plot. “I think our team is the only one in Iowa that uses audio description.”