Inclusive Theatre and Accessibility Design – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Inclusive Theatre and Accessibility Design

Master’s of Teaching students Claire Abelson ’20, MAT ’21 and Sophie Ritter ’20, MAT ’21 focus on inclusive theatre.

Watch Tone a Blind Eye here.
Watch Tone a Blind Eye here.

The Colleges’ first video streaming production Tone a Blind Eye was recently released on demand. All audiences can enjoy the performance through accessible design features, including closed captioning and audio description, thanks to the accessibility team that worked behind the scenes, including two students in the Master’s in Teaching program – Claire Abelson ’20, MAT ’21 and Sophie Ritter ’20, MAT ’21.

Abelson and Ritter not only worked with the show’s director Associate Professor of Theatre Heather “H” May and the entire cast to create an inclusive experience, but they also used the research and information they gathered in the process to create a resource for educators and theatre groups on creating inclusive virtual theatre. Abelson and Ritter presented their findings at the Colleges’ 2021 Senior Symposium and will publish their guide free online.

“From the beginning, the accessibility team was part of the Tone a Blind Eye creative process. We met with the writers/cast before they even began to write their monologues,” Ritter says. Abelson adds that prioritizing accessibility from the beginning allowed the directorial and acting decisions to complement and enhance accessibility features. “It was never an afterthought for post-production. We really believe that accessibility design can be done enthusiastically. There is space for auditory description, the closed captioning makes sense. It never feels clunky or out of place.” she says.

Audio description is an audio narration of visual elements for audiences with a visual impairment, and for Tone a Blind Eye this element of production was written and voiced by Karina Connolly ’23 and July Winters ’24. Captioning transcribes and interprets audio information for hearing impaired audiences. These features will be on display for all viewers. Abelson says creating one viewing experience was an intentional decision. “We didn’t want accessibility to be othered,” she says. Ritter adds that she hopes people view the accessibility features as just another layer of art to the performance.

“The accessibility features are part of the art form. They add to and enhance the picture. The descriptions are written to help you better understand what is happening in the moment and in the photo,” she says.

“Theatre is about taste and beauty. It is about aesthetics. We wanted the accessibility features to be intentional and beautiful as well,” Abelson says.

Abelson and Ritter have experience developing inclusive spaces through their student teaching placements at local elementary schools. In addition to earning their M.A.T., they will also graduate with dual-teaching certifications in primary and special education. To earn their certifications, the pair spent the fall semester teaching full time at Midlakes Elementary School and Geneva North Street Elementary School respectively. Both Abelson and Ritter say teaching through the pandemic challenged them to incorporate technology in innovative ways in the classroom.