In the News ...
New Jersey Theatre Alliance's Cultural Access Network Presents Innovator Award to DBCANNJ
This is the story of how the DeafBlind Community Access Network of New Jersey (DB CAN NJ), a small, grassroots organization, created accessible films for deafblind people to watch on a virtual platform…
Because deafblind people prefer physically close and, sometimes, tactile interactions (ex: picture Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan communicating), DB CAN NJ activities, trainings, and events – from our Cornhole tournaments and drum circles to training Easterseals job coaches, presenting at conferences, and visiting arts and crafts fairs – have always been in person.
And then came COVID-19. The pandemic has been especially challenging for those who can neither see nor hear, cutting them off from people, services, and access to life’s daily necessities, often resulting in overwhelming isolation and loneliness.
Our primary goal during the early phase of the pandemic was to kindle a sense of purpose and belonging … but how? Everything we’ve known about deafblind culture and community has been in person. The hurdles seemed insurmountable: the necessary accommodations, how we would afford them, determining the right platform, and providing training to use that platform. The summer of 2020, our volunteers offered more than 100 hours of small group and individual Zoom trainings. By the end of August, we held a virtual carnival games event which was great fun. Buoyed by this success, we forged ahead, thinking more creatively on each event and eventually adding the arts.
One of our active volunteers, who is deafblind, is a fine artist. He allowed us to use a piece of his work to design custom fabrics that we manufactured into masks and then sold as a fundraiser in the fall of 2020. Every mask design sold out.
In early 2021, the Academy Award nominations were announced. The short film Feeling Through was nominated. The film is especially unique to our community because for the first time ever, a deafblind actor was cast in a leading role. Some in our community knew him. Further, the film is set on the streets of New York City, which made it excitingly familiar. Our community wanted to see this film, but they didn’t know how they’d access it … until DB CAN NJ took on the project. Working with guidance, insights, and feedback from our deafblind community, we adapted the film to a version accessible to deafblind people on a virtual platform. This is how we did it:
Breaking the film into 5 segments with a preview summary provided before each segment.
Developing a described transcript and making it available several days before the screening so that individuals could preview the story ahead of time.
Adding visual and environmental descriptions.
Playing the film at 75% speed made it easier to see and allowed more time for thorough visual descriptions and visual nuances.
Hosting a virtual screening of the film for a deafblind-only audience with these accommodations: voice presentation, live captioning, American Sign Language interpreting, and in-person 1:1 communication facilitators to provide additional environmental information and cues.
Providing an authentic theater experience by sending bags of microwavable popcorn to each attendee.
Inviting the film’s producer, Doug Roland, to join us and after the screening, answer questions from the audience.
The feedback was so positive that we hosted an encore performance for the general public in June. At our virtual DeafBlind Awareness Week Celebration, Mr. Roland joined us once again, agreeing to be interviewed by deafblind people.
Bolstered by this success, for the 2021 holiday season, we adapted A Charlie Brown Christmas using the same techniques and again, an encore performance ensued.
DB CAN NJ believes that art is powerfully expressive and healing. We’ve seen the results in increased camaraderie, new friendships, spirited conversations, and requests for more. This is just the beginning of DB CAN NJ’s innovative accessibility solutions that allow our deafblind community to participate in the arts.