Captioners and Broadway: How we make the performing arts accessible for the hearing impaired

by Jeanette Christian, Co-Founder

This week is National Court Reporting and Captioning Week (February 16-21), and it reminds my co-founder, Chris Woods, and me why we are so proud to be a part of this profession.  We love that our work capturing the spoken word makes a difference in how many people interact with and access their world.  Our profession makes it possible for the more than 36 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing to interpret the same information as a hearing person whether it is for legal, work, education or entertainment purposes.

Open Captioning and the Theater

A recent article in the Virginian-Pilot reported on a theater that offers open captioning (a text display of all the words and sound effects heard during a live program or performance) for their hearing disabled patrons.  The article highlighted Lois Boyle, a court reporter by trade, who made it possible for most of the Orchestra section to “see” what was being said by the actors in “The Addams Family” production. 

Whether patrons could hear well or not, many commented on the value of the open captioning for the play.  The availability of the spoken word on an LED screen was less distracting than someone signing and helped everyone with a view of the screen to get the full meaning of the dialogue on stage.

Availability of open captioning in theaters is far from widespread despite its inclusion in the Americans with Disabilities Act as an approved method for communicating at performing arts events.  Offering open captioning is an expense that many small theaters struggle to afford, so organizations like the Hearing Loss Association of America, Broadway series producer Jam Theatricals, and the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) in New York City are helping make it possible.

TDF provides captioning for about 40 New York-area theaters and for some theaters throughout the country.  The organization “offers a limited number of two-year regional theatre partnerships to sponsor open-captioned performances and increase attendance by people who are deaf or hard of hearing.”  However, open captioning is far from the norm for most theaters nationwide.

Aging Baby Boomers and Hearing Loss

According to the U.S. Census, there are approximately 76 million Baby Boomers who are currently 49 to 67 years old (which includes me!). As the Boomers advance toward their twilight years and the likelihood of hearing loss, I hope the use of open captioning for performing arts events will grow and become more widely available.  Many theaters are not aware of the opportunity for open captioning and how it can benefit all their hearing disabled patrons.  Hopefully more stories like the one in the Virginian-Pilot will raise awareness of a way to bring in new patrons to the theater – ones that have previously assumed that they can’t enjoy the full experience of live performances.

Let’s Get the Word Out

My fellow captioners, I salute you and all that you do to make our world a better place for those that struggle with hearing loss or deafness.  Let’s get the word out to our hometown theaters about the opportunity for open captioning and how it can bring them more customers!

Want to Read More? Check Out These Articles

Annas, T. 2014. Broadway Series Captions the Moment. The Virginian-Pilot. February 15, 2014.

National Court Reporters Association. 2014. 2014 National Court Reporting and Captioning Week Kicks Off.

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. 2010. Quick Statistics.

Theater Development Fund. 2014. National Open Captioning Initiative.

U.S. Census. 2006. Selected Characteristics of Baby Boomers 42 to 60 Years Old in 2006.

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