Services open Penn State performing arts to patrons with disabilities

July 06, 2011

Emily Steffensmeier refused to ask for help. After years of dealing with chronic Lyme disease and dysautonomia (a general term used to describe a breakdown or failure of the autonomic nervous system), the State College woman was scared she would be a burden.

For 10 years she stayed away from most community events because of her challenges with mobility. But after a decade of avoiding asking for help to attend performances, she decided she needed to change the direction of her life and called the Center for the Performing Arts.

As a child Steffensmeier attended many center presentations. Her illnesses -- and her fear -- kept her from coming back. But in 2008 she wanted to see the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis so much, she finally contacted the center to learn what accommodations could be made for her.

Steffensmeier said she was surprised to find out how far staff members were willing to go to make sure she had a memorable experience. Since then she has attended numerous performances, knowing each time she would be assisted without feeling like she was pitied or creating a problem.

“It’s very hard to ask for help and be vulnerable,” she said. “It took so much to (ask for help), but then I thought, ‘Why did I wait?’”

In advance of a performance, Steffensmeier’s mother, Renee, takes Emily’s reclining chair to Eisenhower Auditorium. Staff members place the chair on a wooden platform at the rear of the orchestra section. When Steffensmeier and her mother arrive for a performance, Audience Services Manager Lisa Faust escorts them to the seating area before the other patrons enter.

“She checks on us, chats with us, and makes sure her staff are completely aware of and in tune to our needs,” Steffensmeier said.

After a performance, center staffers carry the reclining chair to Steffensmeier’s car, clear a path through the crowds for her wheelchair, and have a staff member stationed to open doors.

When violinist Joshua Bell performed at Eisenhower in February 2011, Faust and her staff helped surprise Steffensmeier by arranging for her to meet the virtuoso after the performance.

“Everyone has been exceptional every time I go,” she said. “I always want to go back. The center is one of the first things I think of when I want to go to something. My life is richer for asking for the services.”

Making the arts accessible to all patrons is a priority at the Center for the Performing Arts. Wheelchair seating is available in Eisenhower and Schwab auditoriums. A number of appropriately located seats have been reserved for patrons with disabilities, and, upon advance request, sign language interpretation is available for center performances and educational activities. For hearing-impaired patrons, Eisenhower is equipped with an infrared listening system, and Schwab has an induction-loop system. Publications, including OnStage performance programs, are available in large-print or alternative media upon request.

Live audio description, which can enhance appreciation of what’s taking place on stage, is also provided for selected performances and is available to all ticket holders. Supported by the Sight-Loss Support Group of Central Pennsylvania since 1999, audio description involves trained transcribers, situated at the back of the auditorium, speaking through a microphone to patrons wearing headsets. Transcribers speak over silences and music in the performance to describe what’s taking place on stage and to provide background.

“The idea is not to disrupt what someone is listening to, but to add to it,” said Cindy Shaler, co-coordinator of the audio description group for the Sight-Loss Support Group. “Before an event, we give 15 minutes of background information, and before the second act we add more to it. So we have 20 minutes of background we can add.”

“Musicals are the most difficult because there is so little time (to provide information without disruption), ballets and things of that nature have the most time, and dramas are somewhere in between,” Shaler said.

While being able to better understand a performance is beneficial to audio description users, the service also impacts transcribers.

“It makes me feel like I’m giving back to the community, and that makes me feel really good,” Shaler said.

Michelle McManus of State College has been blind since birth. But that has not stopped her from enjoying the arts. She began attending center presentations about eight years ago and several years later started taking advantage of audio description. She now uses the service regularly.

“It helps me know more about what’s going on during a performance so the person next to me doesn’t have to explain,” she said. “It depends on the show how much you need explained. People think audio description interferes with the show, but generally it doesn’t. It helps you enjoy the show more.”

To learn more about special seating and access services, phone the Arts Ticket Center at 814-863-0255. 

  • Emily Steffensmeier had a chance to meet violinist Joshua Bell after his Feb. 3 performance in Eisenhower Auditorium on the University Park campus.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated July 07, 2011