Making Broadway Accessible for the Disabled
Photo of an open captioned opra
The next time you complain about not being able to see the stage from the nosebleed sections of a Broadway theater, think about not being able to see the stage at all.
“No one wants to feel left out of a performance,” said Lisa Carling, the director of the Theater Development Fund’s accessibility program, which offers assistance to theatergoers with physical disabilities. “If you miss a punchline or a dramatic statement, everyone else is included but you are not.”
The Theater Development Fund (TDF), which also runs the city’s TKTS discount ticket booths, helps coordinate services for the blind or those with low vision, the deaf or hard of hearing and patrons who can’t climb stairs or need wheelchair seating.
“When we started 13 years ago, advocates for the disabled came to us and said, ‘Please, I haven’t been able to go to the theater for years because my hearing has deteriorated,’” said Ms. Carling. “People were staying away from the theater.”
Ms. Carling recently spoke to The Times about what kinds of services the TDF Accessibility Program (TAP) offers to the disabled. Following are excerpts from her conversation.
Lisa Carling, director of accessibility programs for the Theater Development Fund. Lisa Carling, director of accessibility programs for the Theater Development Fund.
Tell me more about the TAP program, and how it helps disabled theatergoers attend shows.
TDF is all about building audiences. People with disabilities are often left out of this equation. Our department makes it easier for them to order tickets, attend shows and provide seating in the orchestra at a discount, usually 50 percent off. People can also order seating through the mail or online.
Broadway is great about physical access, but we also hope to provide non-architectural access, such as open captioning, sign language interpretation and audio description. Theaters are required by the Americans With Disabilities Act to offer access, but TDF helps them do it.
What about programs for the blind or others with vision impairment?
Audio description is for people who are blind or have low vision. We use it mostly for school groups during Wednesday matinees.
AUDIO: An excerpt from “The Miracle Worker,” audio described by Carl Tramon (Clip courtesy of Sound Associates, Inc.)
The student holds a small receiver in their hands and puts a single earbud in an ear. They hear a live describer tell them what is happening onstage during moments in the show where you can’t hear anything, like when someone tiptoes across the stage or someone hides something. They will also describe the costumes, sets and the theater itself.
When we go to the theater we often take things for granted. When you hear a show audio described you see things you wouldn’t observe otherwise, because our eyes are lazy, or we don’t bother to study the details.
What about services for the deaf or those who are hearing disabled? What exactly is open captioning?
Open captioning uses a portable LED screen set up orchestra right or left, by the proscenium. It’s rarely on stage because we don’t want to disturb the artistic look of the show. It faces a particular side of the orchestra where we have made tickets available to people with hearing disabilities.
We also offer sign language interpretation, but it is of no help whatsoever to people who are not deaf. Where our department is growing is in providing open captioning because there’s such a demand for it.
Far too many people who don’t hear well are not going to admit it. The benefit of open captioning is that it’s passive assistance. It’s there and you can refer to it or not. You don’t have to identify yourself as having hearing loss. That’s very appealing.
People with hearing loss want to make use of any hearing they have. They will use assisted listening devices in conjunction with the open captioning so they can understand some or most of what is being said.
A scene from an open captioned performance of the Broadway revival of “A Chorus Line.”David LeShay A scene from an open-captioned performance of the Broadway revival of “A Chorus Line.”
What if patrons have special requests? Do Broadway theaters offer any other programs?
I’ve never known a Broadway show to ignore someone’s request. They will handle it in a case-by-case basis. It ranges from all kinds of solutions. It’s up to the theater to address that request, like seating someone close to the stage to lip read, or providing an interpreter in a box or providing a script. It depends on what the theater can do and the seating availability.
Have any non-deaf or non-blind patrons complained about these services?
We have never had a situation where someone wants their money back. Typically, before the show starts, a sign will make it clear to patrons sitting in the front or near the front that the show will be captioned, or that it will be sign interpreted, and that the interpreters may block your view.
If patrons feel this isn’t what they want we’ll work with the house manager to see if there are alternate locations to seat them. It hasn’t been a problem, though. Most of the people sitting on that side of the house are there for the service provided.
There is also a playbill insert that explains what is being done and why it’s there and the history of shows that TDF has captioned.
It’s great that hearing impaired audience members can use listening devices, but what should you do when a device starts to make a high-pitched squeal right in the middle of a performance?
Politely and gently tell them to turn down their hearing aid. The reason you hear it is because that person can’t hear it. The person isn’t intentionally doing that. Either they haven’t turned it down or it is not fitting properly in the ear.
Here is a list of coming performances with various forms of access for disabled patrons:
“Time Stands Still”
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
261 West 47th Street
Saturday at 2 p.m., open captioned
“The Miracle Worker”
Circle in the Square Theater
Wednesdays, March 10, 17, 24 & April 7 at 2 p.m., sign language interpreted, open captioned, handheld captioning with I-Caption provided by Sound Associates
March 23 at 7 p.m., open captioned
March 30 at 7 p.m., sign language interpreted
Helen Hayes Theater
240 West 44th Street
April 3 at 3 p.m., open captioned
“Lend Me a Tenor”
Music Box Theater
239 West 45th Street
April 14 at 8 p.m., open captioned
“Million Dollar Quartet”
208 West 41st Street
April 24 at 2 p.m., open captioned
Vivian Beaumont Theater
150 West 65th Street
May 20 at 8 p.m., open captioned
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
261 West 47th Street
June 5 at 2 p.m., open captioned
For more information on TDF’s disability access program, visit the TAP Web site or send a self-addressed stamped envelope to: TAP, 520 8th Ave., Suite 801, New York, NY 10018.