How Idaho theaters are accommodating audiences with disabilities

Whether transported to Haarlem in the Roaring Twenties or to Denmark in the Middle Ages, live theater evokes a sense of immersion that is hard to explain in words.

As the music blares and dramatic scenes take shape on the stage in front of you, it may be difficult for some audience members to join in on the action. Specifically, those who cannot hear or see the performance.

This is where accessibility features like subtitles and translators come in to give people with disabilities a better experience in theatres, cinemas and concert halls.

“We’ve had several deaf people say it makes such a difference that they continue to be engaged in different ways, and they really appreciate that thoughtfulness,” said LaVona Andrews, coordinator of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s Signing Shakespeare program.

She says accessibility features aren’t new to larger production houses, but for a smaller company like the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, it provides access where it didn’t exist before.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that job prospects for sign language interpreters will increase 24% nationwide by 2030, making it one of the fastest-growing professions in the country. Over the next eight years, the BLS projects that nearly 20,000 interpreter jobs will be created.

Take a quick look at your favorite entertainment venues and you’ll find that many venues already implement these features at most shows.

Signing Shakespeare began in 2010 to add a new access point for some audience members. In 2018, the festival added real-time captioning to its venue.

From now on, the Festival is working on providing sign language interpreters and real-time captioning for each show.

But with staff shortages, outbreaks of COVID-19, and difficult venue arrangements, bringing these features to the public isn’t always possible. This problem came to a head during the recent performance of the musical Ain’t Misbehavin’.

“We don’t have the capacity to do an interpretive performance afterwards because we’ve already filled the sections we normally hold so our deaf and hard of hearing audience can see the interpreters and really enjoy the experience,” Hannah Reed Newbill, Festival Marketing Director

Under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990theaters are required to make some effort to accommodate hearing-impaired, blind and visually impaired patrons.

Most places fit the bill, but often don’t do enough to do the experience justice.

“Often access for the deaf and hard of hearing is an afterthought,” said Steve Snow, executive director of the Idaho Council of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. “I think the industry as a whole doesn’t realize that access isn’t universal, that they actually need to think about it.”

In the theatre, this is especially true of older plays, where early English words do not translate exactly into modern sign language. We don’t use Shakespearean words like “ere,” “bawd,” and “forsooth” offstage, so they don’t have direct translations in American Sign Language.

Also, creating an interpretation requires a lot of advance planning, including for the people who need the services.

Visitors who want to use services such as translators or captions often request them at short notice, leaving movie theaters in a bind. If services are not universally available, this is possible.

“[Theaters] they have to look for these resources, prepare a script, give the translators time to prepare,Snow says.

Audio description services for blind viewers often require similar preparation, says Beth Cunningham of the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

However, such accommodations are not only for people with disabilities. People without hearing or vision impairments can benefit from accessibility services.

“We have people who buy season tickets for interpretation dinners and sit a little further away so they’re not in the deaf section and they’re taking up seats, but they’re doing it because they think it makes the show better for them too,” Andrew said . She said no additional benefit is planned; it’s purely accidental.

While accessibility features still vary from venue to venue, ensuring that everyone can enjoy live entertainment brings the worlds of differently-abled people a little closer.

“The deaf community loves to be involved in the arts, just like any member of the hearing community, and any kind of entertainment,” Snow said.

“I believe that if it’s available to one part of the community, it should be available to all.”

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