Theatre for All

Theatre is one of the world’s oldest forms of entertainment, but in recent years I’d stopped going. My hearing loss was too big a barrier to enjoyment. Now, thanks to technology, I once again have access to theatre, and I’m loving it,

On Easter Sunday afternoon my husband and I went to see The Ferryman, the much acclaimed play by Jez Butterworth that takes place during the Troubles in Ireland. It’s a big cast with many voices. As recently as two years ago the only way I could have seen the play was if the Theater Development Fund had offered an open captioned performance through its Theater Access Program. iStock_000002637313Medium

This Sunday performance was not open captioned. But it was fully accessible to me, for two reasons.

The first is that the theater is owned by the Shubert Organization, which has installed a hearing loop. (For a list of other looped theaters, check out audiologist Louise Levy’s website.) If you have a hearing aid or cochlear implant with a telecoil, all you have to do is change the program to telecoil mode (usually by pushing a button on the earpiece) and the sound will go directly into your ear. If you don’t have a hearing aid with a telecoil, you can use the theater’s headset, which you get at the concierge desk. But really, just go back to your audiologist and ask for a telecoil. It costs almost nothing.

The second reason is captions. My hearing loss is severe enough that the enhanced sound delivered by a hearing loop is sometimes not enough especially in a multi-character play (with Irish accents). Understanding that the loop won’t help everyone, including the signing Deaf, many theaters usually also offer a handheld captioning device called I-Caption. Captions are also availably for your own phone or tablet from GalaPro. For I-Caption, you pick up the device at the concierge desk and drop it off when you leave.  It’s important to remember that captions are not available on I-Caption or GalaPro until four weeks after the show’s opening.

For the second act, I switched to GalaPro. This time I methodically set the captions up during the intermission, so they were ready to go as the curtain rose. The captions were almost perfectly synced to the dialogue and I barely missed a word from that point on.  Given the fast dialogue, Irish accents, and the need for sheer listening stamina (the play is three-plus hours), my guess is that I heard, and retained, more than most of the people in the theater. The combination of sound via the loop and sight via the captions may have made me the best hearing person in the theater.

The GalaPro app is free and available for iPhone or Android. You need to be sure you know the correct steps to activate the captions – before the play begins. It’s not difficult to set up, and the concierge desk can help, but don’t wait till the last minute to get started.

You begin by putting your phone into airplane mode and then sign onto the theater’s wifi system. Scroll down the list of shows to the show you’re attending, and fill in the password. This last step is the one that stumped me. What IS my GalaPro password? Turns out you don’t need one. The site actually tells you the password (GalaPro1). But if you wait till the curtain is about to go up before completing the setup, you’ll find yourself literally in the dark and caption-less until intermission. Yes, this has happened to me, more than once.

You can check whether GalaPro is available at the show you want to see by going on TheaterAccessNYC, another useful tool offered by the Theater Development Fund, in this case in partnership with the Broadway League. The website is just one of many TDF services that make Broadway theater accessible to almost all. In addition to open-captioned performances, TDF-TAP also offers ASL-interpretation, accessibility for the blind and for people with disabilities like autism. The TKTS booths (at Lincoln Center, in Times Square, and at the South Street Seaport) sell same-day half-price tickets. TDF also offers special pricing for students, the elderly and many other groups. See here to find out if you qualify for membership.

GalaPro does have limitations, especially in a play with very fast dialogue. I saw Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet last fall, with the magnificent Janet McTeer playing Sarah Bernhardt. The play itself is intricately layered with McTeer playing Bernhardt playing Hamlet. It’s also very very fast. Everyone once in a while GalaPro seemed to take a breather, so I did miss some lines.

I haven’t tried GalaPro at a musical but I imagine the captions have an easier time keeping up, especially with the songs, which inevitably repeat many phrases. I’m seeing Kiss Me Kate later this month, with open captions via TDF-TAP. I’ll keep an eye on GalaPro for comparison.

Meanwhile, the loop can work very well on its own for me. Last week I saw What the Constitution Means to Me, Heidi Schreck’s autobiographical play. I had good seats, with a good sightline to the actors, and thanks to the loop I understood every word.

I’m very lucky to live in New York, where I have easy access to the theater. Until recently, I didn’t go much because it was too hard to hear. Gala Pro, I-Caption, and looping have given me back the theater again.

Meanwhile, here’s a list of looped venues across the country, with thanks to David Myers and Jerry Bergman.

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For more about hearing health, my book “Smart Hearing.” will tell you everything I know about hearing loss, hearing aids, and hearing health. Smart Hearing_Cover_highres You can get it online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, in paperback or ebook for Kindle or Nook. You can also ask your library or favorite independent bookstore to order it.

No Wheelchair Ramp for the Deaf

Getting hearing access for those who are deaf or hard of hearing is a little more complicated.

No Wheelchair for the Deaf

One accommodation for the hard of hearing is an American Sign Language interpreter. But only a small minority of those who need it, use it. — Getty Images

 

 

Trying to get accommodations for those of us who are hard of hearing or deaf can be a long, tough slog.

Two years ago, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit against shipping giant FedEx Ground, charging it with discriminating against its deaf and hard-of-hearing employees and job applicants for years.

The EEOC alleged that the company violated federal law by failing to provide needed accommodations, such as closed-caption training videos, scanners that vibrate instead of beep, flashing safety lights and American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation.

FedEx filed a motion to dismiss the suit, but this year a federal judge denied the motion. The case is still under litigation.

All of which brings me to the sticky issue of accommodations — namely, that no one type works for all. There is no wheelchair ramp equivalent when it comes to hearing loss.

Although the FedEx case involves the specific needs of a particular workplace, the problems of hearing access challenge all of us and make asking for hearing access — even for something as simple as a better-equipped lecture hall — complicated. Which access do you ask for?

One accommodation that is routinely offered is an ASL interpreter. The problem is that only a small minority of those with hearing loss (less than 5 percent) use ASL. It’s no more helpful to most than an interpreter speaking Hungarian would be.

Among the most widely used accommodations, found in theaters, houses of worship and public gathering places, are infrared or FM headsets. The person with hearing loss borrows a headset from the venue. Sound, which travels through the regular sound system and then wirelessly to the headset, is amplified. Sometimes these systems work well. More often they are helpful to those with milder losses but not for anyone else. They also work only as well as the microphone. It the microphone is badly positioned, the headsets won’t deliver clear sound.

The technology that gets people most excited is induction looping. (Here’s a short video about it.) This, too, works through the venue’s regular sound system, and the sound quality is often excellent. It consists of a wire run around the perimeter of a room that transmits a signal, again wirelessly, to the audience member’s own hearing aid or cochlear implant, set to the telecoil setting. If a hearing aid does not have a telecoil, or the user doesn’t have hearing aids, headsets similar to those used for FM devices can be worn. Sometimes hearing people use them, just to hear better.

For some, the best option is captioning. This can be open captioning on a shared screen, similar to the captions on your television or subtitles on a movie. Or it can be closed captioning, sent to your personal device (an iPhone or iPad) or one provided by a theater. Generally this kind of captioning, called CART, which I described in some detail a few months ago, is live.

Scripts can also be scanned or typed into a new device being tested by Globetitles. It sends prescreened captions to personal devices, including computer and television screens, tablets and smartphones. The captions appear as red type on a black background, so they don’t bother others. You can see a sample by clicking on the Globetitles link.

Unfortunately, no single system fits all needs. Some think captioning serves the largest number of people. Others like looping because you don’t have to do anything except change the program on your hearing aid. Live captioning could be adapted to the kind of Sony glasses used in Regal Cinemas, or something like Google Glass could put captions right before your eyes.

Most venues will probably continue to offer one form of listening assistance (or none). But if that assistance does not serve a person with a hearing disability when another type of assistance would, that person can bring a lawsuit under the ADA.

As Lise Hamlin, the Hearing Loss of America Association’s director of public policy and state development, emailed me in a discussion about accessibility: “You might be able to make a case for both a listening system and captioning under the ADA. The relevant phrase is ‘effective communication.’ The key is providing effective communication to each person who needs it. If even one person is denied effective communication, they can file a claim.”

Most of us don’t want to get involved in a lengthy lawsuit — we just want to understand the play or the sermon or the mayor’s announcement or the community meeting or the visiting candidate. Is that so much to ask?

This post first appeared on AARP Health on August 10, 2016.

Katherine Bouton is the author of “Living Better With Hearing Loss: A Guide to Health, Happiness, Love, Sex, Work, Friends … and Hearing Aids,” and a memoir, “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I — and 5o Million Other Americans — Can’t Hear You”. Both available on Amazon.com.