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Greeley’s National Federation of the Blind chapter goes to the movies

April 17, 2018


Terry Frei

 Members of the National Federation for the Blind of Greeley and UNC students watch the movie “Zootopia” with audio descriptions Saturday afternoon in The University of Northern Colorado’s Harrison Hall. Photo by Davis Bonner.

Guide dogs P.J., Halona and Pepper appeared to be giving “Zootopia” a unanimous paws-down review Saturday afternoon.

As the wickedly clever 2016 animated Disney release played on the two screens in The Den meeting room at the University of Northern Colorado’s Harrison Hall, the three dogs stretched out near their blind masters and slept.

The frequent laughter didn’t awaken them. 

A little earlier, before the film started, I reluctantly followed the rules. The dogs approached me. They stood there, wagging their tails. Their owners introduced me, as Melissa Green, 47, said of P.J., an 8-year-old Yellow Labrador Retriever, “P.J.’s my world. She’s my baby girl. She’s everything to me. We have to work as a team. We’ve been doing it for seven years.”

Yet I didn’t reach out and pet the dogs. The signs on their harness apparatus, while worded differently in each case, told me not to. So I didn’t.

Casey Schueler’s guide dog, Halona, relaxes while Schueler and other members of the National Federation of the Blind of Greeley watch the movie “Zootopia” with audio descriptions Saturday afternoon in The University of Northern Colorado’s Harrison Hall. Photo by Davis Bonner.


This was a gathering of the National Federation of the Blind’s Greeley chapter. The organization’s “audio described film day” was a demonstration of how, with an audio description track dropped in between dialogue, the blind and visually impaired “watch” movies on the screens in front of them or in their minds — or both.

In “Zootopia,” we followed along as rookie cop Judy Hopps, a rabbit in the mammal city, and cynical fox Nike Wilde worked together to solve a case. It worked out in the end — as all Disney movies do, whether plausible or otherwise.

Throughout, a British-sounding woman’s voice provided audio-description narration, as when: “The train is slowing down as it arrives at the grand entrance of the railway station…”

It took a few minutes for me, the uninitiated, to pick out the added voice and get in the flow. Then it didn’t seem obtrusive and made more clear what was happening, as if I had an 11-year-old next to me who had seen the film six times before, knew every plot twist and was whispering explanations.

The Greeley chapter is typical of the NFB, with the six members in attendance Saturday having various degrees of serious vision issues.

Green is a director at the Montessori Academy of Northern Colorado in Greeley and has been nearly totally blind since birth because of premature birth complications.

“I can only see a little bit out of one eye,” she said before laughing and adding, “I have just enough light perception to get me in trouble.”

Along with Linda Anderson, who at age 68 still is a member, Green was a co-founder of the NFB’s Greeley chapter in March 2000. She said her use of audio-described films goes back to video tape, when she was living in Trenton, N.J., in advance of her move to Colorado. She first went to the Colorado Center for the Blind in Littleton in 1994 and eventually to Greeley to attend and obtain two bachelor’s degrees from UNC.

Tape? I forgot to ask if she meant VHS or Beta.

“I signed up at my local talking book library,” Green said. “The first movie I ever watched with audio description was ‘Pretty Woman.’ Before audio description, what I had to do was really concentrate or ask what was going on.”

Chapter president J.J. Aragon is a 26-year-old UNC student.

“I didn’t discover audio-described movies until I was in my early 20s,” she said. “Before then, I would always watch a movie with someone. If I watched it with my mom, she would describe what was happening and I would memorize the movie, essentially. For action-heavy movies, that’s a little trickier because so much happens.”

Here’s an example of an audio-described passage from “The Lion King”

The youngest member in attendance, UNC junior Casey Shueler, is 21 and a graduate of the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. She’s the owner of 2-year-old Halona, also a Yellow Labrador Retriever.

“I have just enough vision to see shapes and colors and things like that,” Shueler said. “It’s so much easier with audio description because I really have to strain my eyes to watch it, and even then I miss a lot. It just makes watching movies so much better because I can just sit back and enjoy the movie.”

It doesn’t necessarily have to be at a special gathering any longer, either. Aragon said at many theaters, including at the Greeley Mall, the blind or visually impaired can ask for special equipment — pretty much a box with a headset — and listen to the audio description. Also, many commercially released DVDs and Blu-Ray discs now come with audio description available.

“It’s great to go to a movie with friends,” Aragon said. “But just to be able to say, ‘Hey, I’m not doing anything, it’s a Saturday, let me go see a movie.’ To be able to do that independently is fantastic.”

Chapter member Ashley Neybert, 24, is a UNC doctoral candidate in chemistry education.

“Sometimes watching the audio-description version, you get a new insight into the show because of the way they describe everything,” Neybert said. “You say, ‘Oh, they’re sad and the reason is …’ They don’t clearly state things in the movie. My sister, who is sighted, has enjoyed that, too.”

Neybert was raised in the Kansas City area and had eyesight problems from the start.

“I had enough vision so my parents thought when I was 2 or 3 and have these really thick glasses, it was kind of cute,” she said. “I’d run into a wall and it was like a secret. They’re like, ‘She doesn’t see very well.’ But they’d just kind of laugh and then watch as I ran into the wall again.”

Eventually, after all realized how serious the problems were, and after her sight additionally deteriorated, surgeries were unsuccessful.

“They kind of worked in that they were experimental,” said Neybert. “All my life I’ve never had depth perception. I always had to wear sunglasses because I had very bad light sensitivity. I was considered legally sighted but couldn’t see that great. The surgery worked on my eyes, but for one reason or another, because I was so young, my brain didn’t fully recognize that my eyes were fixed, so my brain continues on as if my eyes still have a problem to the point now where it won’t fix anymore.”

Pepper, the 5-year-old German Shepherd, belongs to UNC student Raz Terizzi, 35, who hopes to obtain a master’s degree and teach blind and visually impaired students.

Linda Anderson, Melissa Green and Razz Terizzi enjoy snacks while watching an audio description version of the movie “Zootopia.” The event was hosted by the National Federation of the Blind of Greeley in The University of Northern Colorado’s Harrison Hall. Photo by Davis Bonner.

“I love audio description,” Terizzi, 35, said as Pepper wagged her tail, I assume in agreement. “I remember a time when you couldn’t get audio description for love or money. I think I heard my first audio-described movie on a bus. It was ‘Forrest Gump’ and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this movie is so much better than I thought.’ I didn’t get to see audio description in theaters until like when ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ came out (in 2012). That’s not the greatest movie in the world, but I cried because I was in this movie theater and I didn’t have to turn to my friends and whisper, ‘Who’s talking? Is that Spider-Man?’ ”

Anderson, the chapter’s co-founder, is a life-long Greeley resident and was a secretary at a car dealership before glaucoma and unsuccessful cornea transplants led to her blindness about 20 years ago. Her husband, Russ, died 16 months ago. Now when she watches movies, she usually watches them alone and the camaraderie with the younger members of the NFB chapter is a significant part of her life.

Anderson said watching “Zootopia” with her friends was only her second audio-described movie experience.

“I watch movies when there are no voices and I don’t know what’s happening,” she said. “Like I watched a movie the other night — it was ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ — and at the end, I didn’t know what happened.”

She turned to the other members around her.

“I didn’t know who got killed or what,” she said, triggering sympathetic laughter.

After the “Zootopia” closing credits rolled Saturday, Aragon — the chapter president ­— said she was impressed.

“There were some parts where I was thinking, ‘What’s going on now?,’ and then the narrator came in,” Aragon said. “I’ve heard her before. She’s pretty good.”

During my visit with the NFB members Saturday, I found myself initially prefacing questions — about the degree of their blindness or impairment, about whether it has been life-long or otherwise and how they cope — with awkward, self-conscious lead-ins.

But several times, the members cut me off and said ask away, using similar terminology.

“The dumb question is the question that is not asked,” said Aragon, who uses a cane. “That’s very important in this community. I feel like people are often afraid to ask, so they don’t.”

In this instance, the answers were heartening. About perseverance. About overcoming obstacles. About friendships among themselves.

It’s not from a script. It’s real life.