WBU-AP Otsuki Award
Hearing The World Around Me From Echo-Location To Audio Description: A discovery To Be Shared
New Zealand
Elisabeth Jacoba Maria Wesseling (42,Female)

photo: Elisabeth Jacoba Maria Wesseling 


When I was three years old, my world was made up of the sounds around me and the ideas of my own imagination. What I could not see, I either listened to or made up in my head.
One day, when my father took me walking in the woods near our house, he discovered just how much I could really hear. He noticed that I never walked into any trees, always neatly avoiding them. He wondered how I knew they were there if I couldn't see them. I blithely told him that I could hear the trees even though they weren't making any sound.
We turned this into a game in which he pretended to be a tree which I had to find. I found this to be great fun. In fact, without knowing it, my father was actually teaching me a skill which I would subsequently use for the rest of my life. More importantly, I was learning that my ears could give me a lot of information if only I would use them.
I later learned that this was called echo-location. It's something I had been using all the time when moving around with my cane without realising it. Perhaps more significantly, this innocent game with my father had taught me to think creatively about how to use my ears in the world. Far beyond recognising people's voices and footsteps, I could tell what was around me by "listening for sound shadows". What else might I be able to hear if I listened differently?
I became a professional teacher with a huge interest in opera and live concerts. Sometimes I would be given a cheap seat with a poor view so that I had great difficulty in seeing the stage. Perhaps this could be considered as a blessing in disguise because it did save me some money and it became a bit of a joke between me and my friends. They would try to describe some of the action and the costumes to me during the quiet moments or during the intermission. This was a great help to me but my experience was always somewhat two-dimensional. Indeed, I did love the music but I knew that there was more going on which I could not see. Although I was made welcome as a blind person, any gaps in my experience of the performance were my own problem to deal with.
"At least you can hear the music," was the underlying message. "What more do you want?"
Years later, I discovered another way of "listening differently", and truly, a very different attitude towards blind people as consumers of the Arts, through Audio Description. Like many blind people who watch television, I had learnt to eke out every last bit of meaning from footsteps, sighs and atmospheric music in order to figure out what was happening when there was no dialogue. I had done pretty well at guessing correctly much of the time, but I often felt quite dissatisfied with the experience.
When I first heard the Audio Description track on a movie, I was amazed at the detail I had been missing out on. The quiet, under-stated voice of the describer was unobtrusively filling in the gaps for me so that my experience of the film became three-dimensional. The film sound track, which I had always thought sufficient, was suddenly enriched by hearing descriptions of people, scenery and action which I had not known existed.
No more guessing! Now I felt valued as a blind person who can enjoy a visual medium. My full understanding and appreciation of the film mattered enough to somebody for them to create an Audio Description track.
While living in the U.K., I again experienced this attitude towards blind people which said "You are valuable customers and we want to make your experience of the Arts as equal as possible to that of sighted people." I went to some live audio described events and I became determined to have this attitude and service introduced in New Zealand when I would return to that country a few years later.
While I was a member of my Local Council's disability reference group, I was involved in writing Arts For All, published by Arts Access Aotearoa, the first disability arts publication in New Zealand. This booklet aimed at changing the attitudes of arts venues towards disabled patrons.
I believe my untiring enthusiasm for Audio Description during the consultation process had helped to ensure its prominent place in the publication. The venues themselves were being asked to see blind people as customners who deserved to fully enjoy their performances.
Audio Description was tried out by various theatres around New Zealand. It received overwhelming positive response from blind people who, before this, could only access Audio Description through films bought from overseas. Other blind people caught the Audio Description wave and the rest is history.
Now Audio Description is being regularly offered by some theatres around the country. Three major cities have trained audio describers. I feel proud of the small part I had played in making this happen.
As I sat watching an opera recently in my local theatre, I again marvelled at the richness of the visual experience on the stage. The audio describer quietly and professionally explained everything from the costumes and the sets to the comic actions and even the acrobatic stunts performed by some of the singers. I felt like a sighted person, laughing along with the rest of the audience at things which would normally have left me wondering what was happening.
This is all thanks to a changing attitude in my country towards blind people. Audio Description now receives funding and it is taken seriously.
I will continue to support Audio Description in my country in whatever way I can. Perhaps the best way is by telling other blind people how equalising and enriching Audio Description can be.

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