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NYC Theater Accessibility for People Who are Hard of Hearing or Deaf

Updated: Oct 19

Everything You Need for Broadway's Return!

By Caroline Itzkoff, CHC Intern

Caroline Itzkoff, CHC Intern

A little over 18 months ago, Covid-19 forced Broadway and the entire New York theater scene to shut the doors, empty the stages and turn off the lights, save for the traditional ghost light that keeps away mischievous spirits. Now as the city is coming back to life, Broadway is ready to shine again.


As a student at Barnard College and a huge theater lover with some experience acting, writing, and directing, I can’t wait to go with my friends to shows. As a person with hearing loss, however, I’m not sure what to expect. Typically with a hearing loss, it’s easy to miss critical plot points or important dialogue because it’s too dark or you’re too far away for the actors’ enunciation to be heard. It can be especially difficult when you miss a funny line and everyone’s laughing but you. I’ve been in that situation many times and it’s not fun. Fortunately, however, there’s accessibility technology available to help prevent these negative theater experiences.


Before my internship at the Center for Hearing and Communication (CHC), I knew very little about theatre accessibility except for the long-established assisted listening devices I would use from time to time before the pandemic. As New York reasserts its role as the home of American theater, I thought I’d look into the theater accessibility technology and programs available.


Here is a summary of widely available theater accessibility technology and programs offered in the New York theater scene today.


ACT 1: Captioning Technology


CHC Board member and activist Arlene Romoff helped drive the introduction of captioning to Broadway in the 1990s. The first open captioned Broadway show, Barrymore starring Christopher Plummer, debuted in 1997. Arlene started the campaign for accessibility to Broadway “because I needed it,” and as a fellow theater lover with hearing loss, I can’t argue with that. The following provides an overview of captioning technology available today.

I-Caption


I-Caption is a handheld captioning device created by Sound Associates which supplies “verbatim closed captions, subtitles, graphics, or audio playback,” according to the product website. For more information, go to this link: http://www.soundassociates.com/products/icaption/


Why I like I-Caption:

  • I-Caption is offered totally free at most Broadway theaters and simply requires an ID to borrow. I recommend that you arrive early to secure the device since they are provided on a first come, first serve basis. Plus, ask at the entrance where to pick up the device. The location where assistive devices are dispensed is different for each theater.

  • Another great thing is the device is nonintrusive to other audience members, as the backlight of the captioning can be ramped up or down from 0% to 100% for each individual slide.

What else you should know:

  • It can be tiring to hold the I-Caption device up or keep it steady on your lap in a position that makes the captions readable throughout the entire show. Some of the older devices might run slow or not work at all. If you have any trouble, let them know immediately.

GalaPro


GalaPro is a free app that offers on-demand closed captioning which can be downloaded on any smart device (e.g., phone or tablet) and used during the show. What’s terrific is Broadway theaters offer GalaPro as soon as four weeks after opening night according to Playbill.com. See this link for more information: https://www.playbill.com/article/the-new-technology-about-to-revolutionize-broadway

Why I like Gala Pro:

  • GalaPro was specifically created with the partnership of the Shubert Organization, an owner of many Broadway theaters, and the Hearing Loss Association of America, directly involving members of the community in its development. The app is specifically designed to be non-intrusive with virtually no screen glare and no outside notifications interrupting other audience members’ experiences. With the smart device on the GalaPro specific Wi-Fi at the theater and on airplane mode, no notifications can go through.

  • Another positive feature is GalaPro’s captioning technology uses recognition software to track and cue what is happening, so if the show stops or pauses for a few moments, so will the app.

What else you should know:

  • Using GalaPro may cause dizziness and eyestrain for some users, as you’re constantly playing visual volleyball to watch the performance and read the captions, which can make it difficult to enjoy the performance. In addition, it might get tiring to hold the screen device up or keep it steady on your lap throughout the show. Some users have even said that GalaPro was “better than nothing,” which is less than encouraging.

  • One additional thing to note is the synchronicity of the captions with the performance tends to get better over time. So, you might want to wait a few weeks to ensure higher quality captions before seeing the newest show on Broadway.

GalaPro Smart Glasses

According to Broadway News, GalaPro started testing out smart glasses in January 2020, which would “allow the user to view captions in real time with the lenses,” similar to the smart captioning glasses currently in use at the National Theatre in the West End in London. With any luck, these glasses could be available for theatergoers in the next year! See this link for more information about the National Theatre’s Smart Glasses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hn3ya9tnv8c


Although the captioning options for NYC theater may not be perfect. the captions can still be extremely helpful. The best thing about captioning is that it’s another cue that allows you to fill in the blanks without stressing to hear every word. To me, that’s a reason worth trying them out. I know I will!


ACT 2: Assistive Listening Devices


Assistive Listening Devices help to amplify the sounds on stage and there are multiple options. Assisted listening is the most well-known type of technology available at Broadway theaters and the kind I was most familiar with before I began college. Assistive Listening Devices available today include:

Infrared Listening Systems


First introduced in 1979 by Sound Associates, these wireless headsets use infrared technology to help amplify the sound onstage and can be used in tandem with a hearing aid or cochlear implant.


Why I like infrared listening systems:

  • These are completely wireless. The devices are provided for free by the theaters in exchange for an ID, like the I-caption devices. They are also easy to use.

What else you should know:

  • Usually you have to trade in your ID to “rent” them for the show and the assisted listening devices booth or help desk is not always the same at every theater so theatergoers must build enough time to find the desk, get a device and return to their seat into their before-show schedule.

  • Typically there are a limited number of these devices so it’s not always guaranteed that you’ll receive one. This is another reason to arrive early.

  • When using the headset, instead of helping to amplify the sound from the stage, sometimes the sound from the device only echoes it. Many theaters recommend turning off your hearing aids for the best effect.

Here's additional perspective from Dr. Ellen Lafargue, Director of CHC's Shelley and Steven Einhorn Audiology Center:


When using the headset model designed to be used without hearing aids, take extra caution not to lose your hearing aids when you take them out. Put them in a safe and secure spot. Also, remember to make sure your hearing aids are completely off so that the whistling doesn’t bother other theatergoers.


Additionally, it’s important to know there’s another infrared listening device model frequently offered at theaters which uses a neck loop. This model can eliminate the issue of echoing. Simply place the neck loop around your neck, keep your hearing aids in and activate the T-coil or T setting. This will enable the audio to stream directly to your hearing aids. Not all hearing aid models are equipped with a T-coil and sometimes a hearing aid has a T-coil, but it needs to be activated by an audiologist. We recommend that you reach out to your audiologist or CHC for assistance with this.

Hearing Loops


A hearing loop is a thin strand of copper wire radiating electromagnetic signals picked up by a tiny receiver that’s built into most hearing aids and cochlear implants, called a telecoil or T-coil for short. The Gershwin Theater was the first Broadway theater to install a hearing loop in 2013 and about sixteen other theaters have followed since. See this link for more information: https://www.hearingreview.com/hearing-products/accessories/assistive-technologies/whats-going-on-more-loops-and-fewer-telecoils


Why I like hearing loops:

  • When the receiver is turned on the sound goes directly into your hearing aid or cochlear implant without any of the background noise if your device is equipped with a T-coil. The sound is supposed to be crystal clear, instead of staticky or garbled like other assisted listening devices that rely on FM transmission. And, no additional headset is needed to use the system; you just need to turn your hearing aid or cochlear implant to the T-coil setting for use.

What else you should know:

  • Many hearing aid manufacturers have limited the models available with T-coils, and accessing a hearing loop isn't possible without it. So even if Broadway is widening the amount of looped theaters, the full hearing loss community may not be able to use them. I, unfortunately, don’t have a T-coil, so I can’t use the hearing loop system, but if you can, try it out and see what you think! Sometimes the T-coil feature can be activated or added to an existing hearing aid. Again, it’s always best to direct any questions you might have about your T-coil to your audiologist.

ACT 3: Dedicated Theater Programming


Outside of the theater-specific technology for people with hearing loss, other options are available that may not be as obvious as the actual technology.


Theatre Accessibility Program (TAP) by Theatre Development Fund (TDF)


The Theatre Development Fund offers a membership program called the TDF Accessibility Membership which anyone with hearing loss can join with proof of eligibility, such as a doctor’s note or audiogram. By joining the program, members have access to open captioning, where the captioning is displayed on an electronic monitor positioned off to one side of the stage, and sign language interpretation at select performances. I’m definitely planning to go to these shows! For more information, go to https://www.tdf.org/nyc/33/TDFAccessibilityPrograms

Why I like the Theater Accessibility Program:

  • Tickets are usually discounted, sent by mail or sometimes sent by e-offers, where you will be instructed to pick up tickets at the box office.

What else you should know:

  • You need to be flexible. The shows occur about once a month, usually at less popular days/times such as such as on Wednesday nights or a Saturday or Sunday matinee. The show that’s offered may not be the show you want to see, and you may have to wait a few months until it is offered.

  • This is the only reliable ASL interpretation-friendly program that I’ve come across so Broadway otherwise remains extremely inaccessible to the Deaf community unless caption apps are used.

The Metropolitan Opera, Met Titles

The Metropolitan Opera offers in house translation for all its operas with a system called “Met Titles,” which are seen on individual screens on the seat backs, on stanchions, and at all Standing Room locations except the Grand Tier, according to the website. Met Titles are offered in English, Spanish, and German for all operas and Italian for Italian-language operas. I’ve never been to the Met before but after I found out about this opportunity, I absolutely have to go! For more information go to https://www.metopera.org/about/faq/met-titles/


Why I like Met Titles:

  • Met Titles is a completely free part of your Met Opera ticket.

  • Allow users to enjoy a fantastic opera while also understanding the plot, just like anyone else.

What else you should know:

  • Opera is not a Broadway show so it’s a very different type of entertainment.

  • Tickets can be expensive.

Yiddish National Theater

If you have no problem watching shows in foreign languages or are perhaps looking for something new, the Yiddish National Theater at the Museum of Jewish Heritage produces shows that are entirely in Yiddish and provides subtitles above the stage so people can understand the plot. It’s a unique theater experience that I think you might enjoy.


Why I like the Yiddish Theater:

  • The subtitles to the shows are above the stage, getting rid of the visual volleyball with other handheld captioning devices.

  • The Yiddish Theater shows have received terrific reviews.

What else you should know:

  • This isn’t a traditional theater experience as the production is in Yiddish.

  • The shows are not as well-known as those on Broadway.

It was only a short time ago that all these programs and new technology became widely available to people with hearing loss, and it’s important not to forget that. In fact, it’s worth celebrating! However, it’s obvious that there is still a lot of work to be done to make Broadway fully accessible to those who are hard of hearing or deaf.


The pandemic has pushed us inward but with a renewed sense of what it means to be part of the community. People with hearing loss or deafness deserve and can experience the same joy of live performance as everyone else, so take advantage of it!


Personally, I can’t wait to go to my first Broadway show in almost two years this fall! Perhaps I’ll see you at intermission. Until then, enjoy the show!


Caroline Itzkoff is a sophomore at Barnard College of Columbia University and an intern at CHC. At Barnard, she is double majoring in Film and History. Caroline has written a short one act play and has directed a virtual play at the NOMADS original theater club of Columbia University. She loves drama and stories and will continue to pursue her interest in media arts.






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