The Performing Arts Perspective – Unique Aspects to Consider

Jessica Swanson

September 18, 2017


ADA compliance; inclusive interpretation; performing arts; verbal description



What is this study about

The Accessibility Office at the Kennedy Center provided input to the Access App project team regarding needs for performing arts settings, disseminated information about the project through the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) network, and engaged users in testing and focus groups. This case study summarizes the specific features required for using such an app in the performing arts context. In conclusion, the crowd sourced aspect of the verbal description hindered the expected use of the access app but opened up other routes of accessible experience. 

Top line summary

This case study outlines research questions the team found useful to explore and presents the findings of the following critical content requirements – including why and how these contribute to a successful crowd sourced verbal description:

  • Accurate
  • Synchronous and Timed
  • Scripted and Improvisational
  • Consistent
  • Clear and understandable.

About the author

Jessica Swanson is the Manager of Accessibility for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts


Functionality and Features

Before developing the app, it was necessary to establish the features and functionality required to provide effective accessibility services using a mobile platform in a performing arts setting.   Using paper prototypes, facilitators engaged performing arts administrators in a discussion to identify needs and impressions of the concept.  The resulting list of questions address ease of managing the app and its content, features and functionality, quality control of contributed content, potential impact on other patrons and visitors, and infrastructure needs:

  • General Functionality and Customization
    • When and where users can access the content?
      • Is the content downloaded on the phone in advance or can the content only be available in certain locations (such as inside the building, exhibit or theater)?
      • Can the access be controlled so patrons can use content only when they are at the venue or if they enter a code to prove they have purchased a ticket?
      • Is it possible to make difference content available in different ways? For example, pre-show notes or programs could be available at any time but the description, assistive listening, captioning, and/or interpretation would only be available if inside the theater.
      • Can the content be downloaded?
    • Can the content be delivered live or does it need to be pre-recorded?
    • Does the app include a review process for contributed content? How can an organization ensure that the content is accurate and appropriate?
    • Will users have the ability to provide feedback regarding certain contributions through the app?
    • Will users have the ability to adjust the appearance of the captions (font size, colors)?
    • If there are multiple descriptions of the same object or place, will patrons have the ability to filter content to find the content that suits their interests?
    • Can you disable the contribute feature during specific times?
  • Functionality and Customization for Live Events:
    • Can the content be synched with the performance so someone could use audio description or captions live during a show?
    • Can the content delivery be synched at any point? What if a patron arrives late?
    • Can the contribute feature be made unavailable during a show?
  • Functionality and Customization for Tours and/or Exhibits
    • Can we define a path for users to take?
    • Can users choose the order in which they access information about objects in an exhibit?
  • Ease of Use:
    • How easy is it to add content?
    • How quickly could we generate accessible content and make it available on the app? Is this practical for production that have short runs?
    • Are patrons comfortable using devices in theaters?
  • Impact on others:
    • Will the glowing light of the screen be disruptive in a dark theater?
    • How would this impact us on a busy night? Would people have their faces in their phones and clog walkways?
  • Infrastructure:
    • What sort of infrastructure is needed for an organization to support the use of the app, including wifi coverage and phone charging stations?
    • What staff or volunteer support would be required to assist users?

By reviewing best practice and synthesizing the questions and comments from focus groups, the following features were identified as necessary for delivering effective accessibility services in a performing arts setting:

  • Accurate –The transcription, translation or description must be accurate.
  • Synchronous and Timed – The accessible content must be delivered in synch with the performance and simultaneously to all users and at the appropriate moment. (For example, captions and interpretation should not appear before a line is spoken and descriptions should not be delivered over top of dialogue.)
  • Scripted and Improvisational – Pre-recorded or pre-programmed services can be offered for scripted events while others require a live service provider to accurately capture improvised or impromptu content.
  • Consistent – Specifically related to description, the time available to drop description in between spoken or sung lines is often minute. A consistent vocabulary over the course of the production allows the describer to sneak critical description in during those brief pauses.
  • Clear and Understandable – Audio feeds must be clear and captions and interpretation must be legible.

The unique “contribute” aspect of the Access App, allowing any patron or visitor to record audio or enter text about objects or places, prompted a lot of discussion.  Administrators indicated that crowdsourcing is not a practical means of collecting content with the features needed to provide effective access during a performance as the information may not be accurate, vocabulary from one user to the next would be inconsistent, and it is highly unlikely that the content would meet the timing requirements (i.e., the exact description needed at a specific moment that fits in the pause between an actor’s lines). Additionally most venues will not encourage or allow their audience members to contribute live during an event and contributed content collected before or after a performance would likely be more general as opposed to specific descriptions about moments or scenes.

While crowdsourcing is not the best fit for a performance, it was viewed as a unique way to engage patrons and visitors and allow them to share their opinions and ideas with others.  Several other applications were identified including description of the venue and its history, pre-performance information such as audio description pre-show notes and program or educational notes, exhibitions, and general tours.

A Shift in Focus

When the functionality requirements were shared with other members of the project team, the synchronicity and pacing and the ability to deliver live as well as pre-recorded content were flagged as challenging.  Ultimately it was determined that it was not within the scope of the project to develop a tool with this functionality.  Instead, the project narrowed its focus to examine methods of crowdsourcing effective description in museum and other exhibition spaces and delivering that content through an app.

User Feedback

Designing a tool that would meet the needs of and be of interest to the intended audience was at the center of the Access App project.  Multiple phases of user testing and focus groups were conducted to gather data to inform the development and possible future applications of the tool. The Center served as a site to gather user feedback from patrons and visitors with and without vision loss.  Two sculptures and one room at the Center were identified as tour “stops” for testing.  The feedback gathered was aggregated with other participating sites and a more complete analysis can be found in the evaluation reports of this project. Key takeaways from the Kennedy Center groups include the following:

  • Accuracy and confidence in the content is paramount if the app is intended to provide accessibility to patrons and visitors with vision loss.
  • Users want choice and the ability to filter the content so they can find the descriptions that are of most interest (more or less detailed, professional or crowdsourced, etc.).
  • Prompts may need to provide contributors with more specifics so they feel confident about their ability to contribute.
  • Geolocation and/or wayfinding features should be added so users know where they are in relation to the object being described and how to get from one point to another.
  • The app must be fully accessible, including utilizing accessibility features of a smartphone or tablet’s operating system.
  • Everyone should be able to contribute if the app is being used to engage visitors. 
Next Steps

Reviewing the comments collected from all surveyed audiences and possible user groups, the following elements were identified as areas of further development or study:

  • Provide the user with choice to find the content that aligns with their interest and needs through tags, filters, ratings, and labels.
  • Provide the arts organization with a means to review content prior to publishing.
  • Explore ways to tackle the technical challenges related to the delivery of accessible content during a performance, perhaps through partnerships.
  • Engage in testing of mobile technologies in performance settings to better understand the ease of use and maintenance, infrastructure needs, impact the use of an app has on the experience for everyone, and how the use of an app compares with current accessibility practices.


As an organization with a strong commitment to accessibility, the Center continually explores new ways to engage our community and provide meaningful content and experiences.  While the app does not yet incorporate all of the elements required in performing arts settings and all features desired by users, the information collected and the ideas synthesized will support the next phase of accessibility in the cultural arts.