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Accessible Practices Behind the Scenes Bridget Shea
Bridget Shea: Making Large-Format Theaters and Planetariums Accessible

When interviewed for this profile in 1998, Bridget Shea was the theater manager at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, D.C. Before coming to NMNH in 1997, she was the theater manager for the National Air & Space Museum. Here she recounts 13 years of working to make museum planetariums and large-format theaters more accessible to visitors with disabilities. In the recounting of her experiences, Shea argues why large-format theaters and planetariums should provide accessible services and lists criteria for how to choose them.

My Background and Current Work
As I earned my undergraduate and graduate degrees in human communications, I worked in a planetarium. I found my training in human communications crucial to my work because it gave me insight about how to communicate with diverse groups of people. Immediately after college, I moved to Baltimore to produce planetarium programs at the Maryland Science Center. I wrote scripts, engineered soundtracks, built special effects, managed production staff, and programmed shows. I did some work for the large-format theater as well; specifically, I created pre-announcements, post-announcements, and slide shows. Believing that providing accessible services was the right thing to do, the museum began to caption its planetarium programs and large-format films.

In 1992, I became the theater manager at the National Air and Space Museum where I managed operations for both the IMAX® theater and the planetarium. While at the museum, I implemented several facility upgrades and broadened the services offered to underserved audiences, including adding closed captions.

In 1997, I was hired to be the theater manager for the IMAX® theater at the National Museum of Natural History which opened in early 1999. My job is to manage all of the operations of the theater, including these services: closed captioning, audio description, and foreign language translations.

The Need for Accessible Services
My experiences in two museums show how I came to realize the need for accessible services in museum planetariums and large-format theaters.

The Maryland Science Center
At the Maryland Science Center, we started providing accessible services because we thought it was the right thing to do. With the help of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf, we applied for and received a grant to caption our planetarium shows. The technology was simple: we projected slides onto the walls of the theater.

Initially, museum staff did not write the captions. When volunteers from the deaf community made the captions, they simplified technical explanations and used vocabulary that was more reflective of a deaf person's signing vocabulary. Consequently, our staff began to simplify technical explanations in soundtrack scripts, anticipating captioning needs. The recorded soundtracks became the same as the captions.

These changes in vocabulary really benefited everybody. Captioning forced us to write scripts that the whole audience would understand. Our approval rating went up significantly. Additionally, we finally heard parents explain things to their children correctly. We realized that there were benefits to the captioning process other than the most obvious ones.

The National Air and Space Museum
About the same time the Maryland Science Center was captioning its theater and planetarium shows, staff at the National Air and Space Museum were also developing services for visitors with disabilities. Responding in part to their personal experiences with blindness, they chose to install the WGBH Educational Foundation's Descriptive Video Service (DVS)®. This audio description service utilizes a broadcast audio track that describes the scenes appearing on the screen during pauses in the regular narration. It was relatively easy for Air and Space to add because they were already broadcasting language translations for international visitors.

Services for people who were deaf and hard of hearing were also reconsidered at this time. Previously, groups of people who were hearing impaired or deaf sometimes brought their own interpreters or, upon request, the Smithsonian provided interpreters for both individuals and groups. The interpreters sat in a spotlight where they could be seen. Additionally, scripts of films and flashlights were available. Letters from visitors, the success of the audio description system, and staff readiness set the scene for implementing a more advanced system.

Choosing Services
In 1994, the National Air and Space Museum decided to install a captioning system. The process of selecting this system illustrates factors one needs to consider when choosing an accessible service. In this case, we provided services for visitors who were deaf and hard of hearing, but the ideas here will likely apply to services for many audiences. We found that the most important step in choosing a service was to listen to our particular audience.

In our initial thinking about captioning systems, we considered differing views about closed captions versus open captions. We chose to have a closed captioned system at Air and Space because we wanted a quality experience for everybody in the auditorium. Considering people who didn't speak English, for example, we thought it would be confusing for them to listen to translations in their headsets while spoken and written English competed for their attention.

After we committed to having a closed captioning system, we organized focus groups and developed surveys that tested four different prototype systems. Participants included people who were hearing, deaf, and hard of hearing. We worked with them until we found the right compromise for everybody. Part of the problem we found was explaining the limits of technology and why we couldn't do everything that people would have liked us to do. We really had to work on coming to a compromise between what we could do and what people needed, while still keeping the integrity of the programming in place.

Of the four prototypes tested, we chose to install the Rear Window® Captioning System. Museum staff worked with staff from The Caption Center at the WGBH Educational Foundation in Boston. This closed captioning system runs off of a computer in the projection booth. The computer sends a signal to display reversed text captions on a light emitting diode (LED) display mounted in the rear of the theater. Patrons use a smoked plexiglass panel to catch the words as they would an image in a rear view mirror. Overall, we chose this system over others we tested because:

  • Visitors using it could sit anywhere in the auditorium.
  • We did not have to do any wiring at the seat; we just had to attach metal brackets to hold the plexiglass.
  • It was the easiest to maintain because the devices were relatively indestructible.
  • The plexiglass holder used for this system is on a flexible arm so you can move it wherever you want it. People in our focus groups and surveys said that they wanted to be able to view captions in the middle, to the side, and underneath the screen.
  • We thought the holders were less likely to be stolen than other expensive computer devices we saw.
  • It was the least costly.

Ways to Make More Theaters Accessible
Providing accessible services has been a movement that has been going on for a lot longer than people think, and it has really been developing in museums. We still have a long way to go, however, until every large-format theater and planetarium is accessible to people with disabilities. These are some things we can do:

  • Talk to other people in the industry. Last year I chaired the session on accessibility in large-format theaters and planetariums at the International Space Theater Consortium's annual conference. We had a huge turnout and it was a discussion forum for learning about what people are doing.
  • Convince filmmakers to weave accessible services into production costs. The last year or two have seen great growth in this area. We are trying to encourage all the filmmakers to do audio descriptions and captioning right up front.
  • Encourage new theaters to put in accessible services from the very beginning, rather than retrofitting their space later.
Click on the links below for more information on
Assistive Listening Devices
Audio Description

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