It can be challenging for a blind or visually impaired person to fully enjoy a stage performance, but thanks to a new program at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute — part of the University of Miami Health System and the Miller School of Medicine — the visually impaired can experience a performance through touch.
The unique program, titled “Feel the Art Balkan” (FAB), named after Bascom Palmer’s Samuel & Ethel Balkan International Pediatric Glaucoma Center, kicked off its inaugural event in May at a performance of Disney’s Broadway musical “The Lion King” at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County in Miami.
In a collaboration between Bascom Palmer and the Arsht Center, patients with visual impairment took part in the Arsht Center’s Touch Tour, which allows participants to feel an array of props and character costumes prior to the show to get a better mental image or close-up look of the characters and other elements of the show. To add to the experience, the Arsht Center provided wireless headsets with audio descriptions of the action on the stage.
“The theater isn’t a place where children and adults with visual impairment are typically invited, said Alana L. Grajewski, M.D. a professor of clinical ophthalmology at Bascom Palmer, and founder of the Balkan Center. Still, “many of the participants have some vision but limited visual field. A simple clue to where a character is on the stage allows them to find and track the character and the story without the frustration of hearing activity but not knowing where to find it on the stage.”
She added that audio guidance is key, as live theater timing will vary, and the typical pre-recorded devices can fall short and even disrupt the play’s dialogue or music.
Dr. Grajewski, a renowned pediatric glaucoma specialist and eye surgeon, not only specializes in treating and researching pediatric glaucoma, but also provides patients with life skills. FAB is part of the Balkan Center’s social strategy, which identifies and implements programs that will help visually impaired youth and young adults prepare for college and life’s social settings, such as attending the theater.
“We work like crazy to save their vision. We want them to have a normal life,” Dr. Grajewski said. “This is going beyond the operating room, beyond the exam room to help make sure these kids grow up to be happy citizens, enjoying theater and the ballet.”
Bascom Palmer patients and their families were among about 20 Touch Tour participants in the May event. They slowly ran their fingers and hands across wooden masks, elaborate grass headpieces, beaded skirts and whimsical feathered bird costumes to better imagine and get a closer look at “The Lion King” characters.
“When you feel [the costumes] with your hands, for someone that’s blind or half blind, it really gives you that imagery in your head,” said pediatric patient Marcelo Varela.
“Size and shape and weight, too, are always a mystery to a blind person, unless you put your hands on it,” said Steve Gladstone, a longtime Bascom Palmer patient. “My imagination normally does not match reality.”
The Arsht Center shares Bascom Palmer’s vision of making the performing arts accessible and enjoyable for all.
“For us, it’s important that this group comes and experiences the theater in a different way, but also that we meet them where they are,” said Jairo Ontiveros, the Arsht Center’s assistant vice president for education and community engagement. “No matter what disability or ability you may have, the arts are for everybody.”
In addition to providing accessible seating for all performances and events, the Arsht Center offers services year-round for patrons who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind or have low vision — sign language interpretation, open captioning, touch tours and audio description.
“We feel this really bring the shows to life for our sight-impaired guests and ensures that everyone can find joy in the performing arts,” said Ontiveros.
Dr. Grajewski said one goal of FAB is to continue improving the theater experience for the visually impaired by providing arts centers with expertise on how specific seating areas offer the better fields of vision for specific eye conditions.
“We’re beginning to realize that there are places for you to sit depending on your condition or type of vision loss,” she said.
For more information on the Arsht Center’s Touch Tour, visit https://www.arshtcenter.org/.