A blind theatregoer is suing Hamilton — think that’s reasonable?

March 18, 2017 • Posted in blindness, technology for people who are blind by

An NPR story this past week reported that a theatregoer who is blind is suing the producers and the theater that’s offering the hit musical “Hamilton” in New York City because they are not offering headsets with live audio description for theater-goers who are blind or have visual impairments.

You regular blog readers know that I’m a huge fan of the word “reasonable” when it comes to reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, but in my view, the “reasonable” part applies to both parties. Is it 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?

Sure, someone would be there live to describe the actor’s movements, but at what expense? And let’s get real. Would anyone with a good pair of ears want to mask the sensational sound of the live music on stage by wearing a headset?

Thanks to my dear friend Colleen, I was able to attend a preview of Hamilton when it opened in Chicago last year. Audio description was available at the performance we went to, but with so much information out there about the hit musical online and in audio books, I didn’t use them. This is one theater piece that is more about music than action. Here’s an excerpt from my review. It opens with a description of Mike buying me the CD ahead of time :

He even bought me the CD and read some of the lyrics to me before I figured out where to find them online to research the wording myself. Anytime he left home, he’d return to the sound of the Broadway performance blasting from our living room speakers. “You can leave it on,” he’d sigh, but I’d turn it off. More fun to listen alone anyway. Then you could dance and sing along.

In my review, I report on what a good sport Mike was about my little obsession. He asked questions about — but did not attend — “In the Heights” (Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway musical) after Colleen and I went to see Chicago’s Porchlight music Theater’s production a few weeks before we went to Hamilton. And, being a non-fiction kind of guy, Mike happily listened along when I’d go to bed with the audio version of Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (the biography that inspired Hamilton the musical).

That's me after the performance with  Lafayette. Or me and Jefferson. Whichever you prefer.

That’s me and Lafayette after the Chicago performance. Or me and Jefferson. Whichever you prefer.

Colleen chose to listen to the book on audio, too, rather than read it in print. The audio book is 38 hours long. It is absolutely astounding that the musical Hamilton covers pretty much the entire Alexander Hamilton story in three hours. The founding father packed a lot into his short life, leaving more than 26 written volumes of work and oodles and oodles of personal letters behind when he died. And when he was alive? Alexander Hamilton liked to talk. To tell all that in three hours, you need to fit a lot of words in to every measure. You can’t hold onto a musical note very long — you’ve gotta move right along to the next scene. Using hip-hop was a no-brainer. And, simultaneously, brilliant. One thing that is stunning about Hamilton is that it never stops, and there are no speaking parts. Every word is sung. You wouldn’t want to miss a note, and I think you’d miss a lot with someone in your headset describing the action.

The NPR story reports that Scott Dinin, the attorney representing the blind theater-goer, is not seeking damages for his client. “He can’t under the terms of the ADA. He’s trying to make sure that theater becomes more inclusive by spotlighting the problem using Broadway’s biggest hit.” Is that resonable? I don’t think so.

Brad Akin On March 18, 2017 at 10:14 am

Hi Beth!
I love your blog and look forward to getting your updates in my inbox. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!
Obviously it’s all personal opinion, but I disagree with you on a few points here. First, I disagree on the value of knowing what’s going on visually during Hamilton. I am biased, for sure: I’m not blind and I’m a director who puts a lot of time and thought into the staging. I just saw Hamilton for the first time and the staging brought new layers and meaning that listening to the soundtrack did not provide. There is obviously much to enjoy without the visual elements, but I can understand this man’s desire to experience all the layers of meaning.
Second, I believe that the request is reasonable for a number of reasons. As the article points out, having an automated audio description timed to the performance is fairly easy to do for a Broadway musical and many have them. But even if it’s not available for every performance, they could have done what Hamilton Chicago is doing and offer specific performances with an audio describer. The cost for such a service is very reasonable and a very small price for offering this important show to a wider audience.
Again, that’s my opinion. Thanks for the thoughts and conversation. I look forward to reading more from you!

Beth On March 18, 2017 at 10:31 am

Thank you, Brad, for giving me more, dare I say, Insight on this. I’m going to email you separately and see if you might be willing to write a guest post about all this?
—–Original Message—–

Heidi Thorsen On March 18, 2017 at 3:58 pm

Hi Beth,
Your passionate descriptions of Hamilton are certainly compelling to me, who is not familiar with the story, but has seen the hype. I can see the blind theater-goer’s point as being valid. First, the essence of any Broadway show is live performance – and so for a visually impaired individual, I feel they should have the same opportunity of live audio description to capture perhaps the individuality of each production. Second, and not to say they have it and so should we, but I have never seen taped sign language presentation, from my experience they are always live.
I actually applaud the courage of this individual to take a stand and pursue an issue that he feels passionate about and imho is reasonable. I do like the idea of live audio description being available on certain production dates as opposed to every showing.
Thanks for your thoughts in this post.

Beth On March 21, 2017 at 10:53 am

What a flattering response, Heidi. Thank you. Am still trying to find someone who is blind who went to Hamilton in Chicago and used the audio headsets, stay tuned. My friend Jeff Floddin is blind and was given headsets when he went to Hamilton here in Chicago, but before the show began a sighted patron next to him worried out loud to an usher about the possibility of the sound from his headsets leaking out and bothering her. He writes about this in a post very cleverly titled A Burr in My Saddle on his own blog, I hope you’ll head over there and give it a read. Spoiler alert: in the end Jeff doesn’t use the headset anyway, he is so taken by the sound and the music that, like me, he didn’t want to miss a note. An excerpt here from his post:

“I had prepared: I had listened to the Ron Chernow biography of Hamilton—all 38 hours and 22 minutes of it. My wife and I had virtually memorized the Broadway Cast recording. So, without prompting, I knew who was talking to whom about what. And, at intermission, my wife described what I couldn’t learn from my homework—the costumes, the choreography, the look.”

Margie On March 18, 2017 at 4:25 pm

Loved this article you wrote about Hamilton. I will finally get to see it in October. However, I totally agree with you about listening to the score being the most important thing. I also have played the cds so many times that I know all the words and can picture all the action. Rather like reading a book and having your imagination put to work!

mary kaye On March 18, 2017 at 8:11 pm

It strikes me that some people are so unhappy in their lives, they cannot bear to leave unmitigated joy alone. But that’s what makes lawyers rich.

Beth On March 19, 2017 at 9:21 am

Might be worth knowing if the theater-goer had tried to contact anyone at the theater or involved with the show to see if there was something they could try to put together in the future. You know, before calling a lawyer…

Beth On March 19, 2017 at 9:23 am

A friend of mine who is blind contacted me privately to ask for the link to the lyrics, thought I’d share that link here, too, with anyone who has traveled this far down in the list of comments.
Here’s a page to find all the lyrics:

Keep hitting the “u” button with JAWS and eventually you’ll get to a list of the songs one-by one. You’ll hear “Alexander Hamilton” followed by “Aaron Burr, Sir” followed by “My Shot” and on and on. Use the up and down key on your keyboard to locate whatever song it is you want the lyrics to, hit the “enter” key on and the site will go too a page with those lyrics. The lyrics also tell you who is singing what, which was very helpful when I first started listening and would sometimes get Washington mixed up with Hamilton and so on.
Most important: enjoy your research –it’s fun. A Warning, though: it can also be somewhat obsessive. Don’t ask me how I know.

Benita Black On March 19, 2017 at 12:32 pm

How does the blind person know that what the live visual describer is describing is what he/she is “seeing” in his/her head? And conversely, how does the describer know that what he/she is describing is what the blind person is “picturing?” Having had the experience of describing things to blind people, I would say that the level of detail necessary to describe a Broadway show of the complexity of “Hamilton” would be near impossible – especially as it keeps moving and changing. If this were an Olympic event, the degree of difficulty would be a 10.

Beth On March 21, 2017 at 10:49 am

You know, while researching Hamilton before I saw (okay, heard) it, and now, researching it again to write this post, I keep discovering more and more blog posts with references to puns or nods to other old songs in the lyrics, plus references to some slights of hand in the action on stage. My guesses most people who can see (and those of us who can hear) miss some of those. Of course I wish I could see it for myself, but I can’t. So it’s been a lot of fun to do what I can and picture it in my head, and it was a thrill to be in the audience , feel the vibe of those around me, and hear the music live on stage.
Hoping someone who is blind and used live audio description at Hamilton (it *is* available at theaters from time to time) will weigh in here and let me know what it was like to have a headset on with someone talking in their ear during the performance.

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