How audio description equipment helps make arts more accessible in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh’s art scene is full of a wide variety of performances providing entertainment for audiences across the region. But options for patrons with vision impairment are often limited and they’ve long been unable to fully experience the shows as they’re intended.

Fortunately, an increasing number of arts organizations in Pittsburgh are making their performances more accessible by providing audio description services for people who are blind or have low vision. And for those organizations who want to expand their offerings, the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council is proud to offer free equipment rentals.

According to the American Foundation for the Blind, audio description includes a narrator who verbally provides short descriptions of a scene's key actions or visual elements, including what an actor may be doing, wearing, or making key facial expressions. Having access to this service enhances the experience for people who are blind or visually impaired.

Photo of Nathan Ruggles. Inside a theater tech booth, from a vantage point low above a long desk running away along its length, he sits in profile, leaning toward a mic sitting on the cluttered surface, gazing intently out through the window at left. A middle-aged male wearing headphones and a sky blue oxford cuffed at the elbow, a small table lamp reflects striking white light up into the light pink skin of his face, casting deep shadows in what otherwise is a space dimly lit in blue and lavender.
Audio describer Nathan Ruggles // Photo by Laura Slovesko

Nathan Ruggles, a seasoned audio describer in Pittsburgh, says it’s important for visually impaired persons to have the same ability to enjoy performances as their sighted peers.

“It’s about folks being able to participate fully in society and it’s for people to have access to the same entertainment, the same arts that anyone would,” Ruggles says.

Ruggles has worked for countless different organizations in Pittsburgh during his almost decade of working with audio description, including the Pittsburgh CLO, Film Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Prime Stage Theatre, and more. He stresses that audio description is more needed now than ever before.

During the pandemic, he adds, many folks in the visibly impaired community ended up at home and weren't able to get out as much. “Until you really intentionally start thinking about what it means for people in that community who want to enjoy the arts and finding out what their needs are, do you start to fully understand.”

Thanks to local partners and funding from the Allegheny Regional Asset District, the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and City Theatre are proud to offer access to two sets of complete Williams Sound Digi-Wave 300 multichannel digital radio frequency systems to any regional cultural organization in need at no cost.

This audio description equipment has historically been booked most frequently for theater performances, with film as the second most common discipline, according to Morgan Kasprowicz, Director of Research and Special Projects at the Arts Council. Over the past fiscal year, this audio description equipment was booked 21 times.

The key is ensuring access is available for all who want to come see a show.

Brian Rutherford, a blind former costume designer living in Pittsburgh, has been taking advantage of audio description for years.

“I believe that audio description should be considered its own art form, or an extension of the dramaturgy of any given artistic piece and whatnot," Rutherford says, "because it is more often than not telling a story of some form."

"Are we going to be accessible for everyone?"

But he says it's equally important that the audio description in arts spaces is accurate because mistakes can make it difficult to enjoy the show. 

“Usually what you have to do is you start your journey by picking up a headset device at various places depending on the theater,” Rutherford says. “Then, there’s the other piece of the puzzle, which is generally wondering if your device is going to receive that description. One of the first times I went to see a movie, it was set up for a different theater, and so I was sitting down in my seat and heard somebody with a shotgun and was like, 'OK, that’s not the movie I’m seeing.’'”

Rutherford believes that for reasons like these, Pittsburgh companies and organizations should make accessibility a priority.

“I think accessibility at this point in our day and age should be a definite item on their budgets,” Rutherford says.

Ruggles says he believes audio description services will keep moving forward.

“What it comes down to for Pittsburgh is, are we going to be accessible for everyone? Are we going to not just provide some service that would allow someone who’s visibly impaired to participate more fully and enhance their experience?” Ruggles says. “It’s one thing to invite someone or say, 'Come join us,' and so that’s the challenge for Pittsburgh and every arts organization.”

To reserve audio description equipment with the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, please fill out this request form. To learn more about hiring Nathan Ruggles, visit


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