5 Ways To Make Theater Accessible to Deaf Audiences

Show-Score | By JW Guido, and Annie Wiegand. | Mar 21, 2017

Our friends at the New York Deaf Theatre gave us a few tips on how to make theater accessible for those who can't hear. Don't forget to catch their performance at "Performeteria" on March 24th!

New York Deaf Theatre Helps Bring Accessibility New York Deaf Theatre Helps Bring Accessibility | By NYDT

New York City is probably the best place in the world to enjoy live theater, from Broadway to church basements--there’s so much to see, but the absence of accessibility can sometimes dampen the experience. As Deaf artists, we want to consume as many shows as we can, so we thought we’d share with the Show-Score community how theater can be made accessible, and more enjoyable for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing (HoH) audience members like ourselves, and for everyone!

1. Open Captioned Performances

Ever been to the Opera where you needed to read the English translation text because the performance was in Italian or German? That’s a captioned performance. An electronic text display placed near the stage visually shows Deaf and HoH audience members what the performers are saying or singing, and describes sound effects throughout the performance. Nowadays some theaters even have individual monitors on the backs of seats, like airplane TVs. Technology is always changing, and almost every Broadway show is open captioned at least once, but we look forward to even more progress in the future!

2. Interpreted Performances

Some Deaf audiences would rather watch a show with interpreters using American Sign Language (ASL). Companies in NYC like Hands On and the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) often provide interpreters for theater shows who request their services, but making that first step to request interpreters doesn’t always happen, so we definitely appreciate when productions make that effort. You can actually see TDF’s Theater Accessibility Program (TAP) in action on Friday, March 24th, at PERFORMETERIA, where you can also see New York Deaf Theatre perform as part of the festival!

3. Visual Performances

Sometimes we forget that not all theater is plays and musicals! A performance with a lot of dialogue can be boring for Deaf audiences, especially when there’s no choreography. A performance with a lot of dancing and visual elements, including lighting and stage design, can convey profound stories to both Deaf and hearing audiences. Ballet and Cirque du Soleil continue to be enjoyed by audiences of many languages around the world!

4. Non-speaking Performances.

A performance with a lot of physicality and visual-gestural communication, is a different way to make an accessible show. Since the audience doesn’t need to understand spoken language, or even English, to understand theatrical elements like Mime and Clowning, these types of performances are “Deaf-friendly,” and can be enjoyed simultaneously with hearing audiences.

5. Deaf Talent On-stage

Of course, we all love to see ourselves on stage, and it contributes greater diversity in theater and performing arts. Just as important as racial and gender representation, using Deaf Talent shows our Deaf children that anyone can be ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Hamilton,’ no matter who they are. This has always been a priority for New York Deaf Theatre, and we’re proud to put local Deaf artists first, in all our productions since 1979. We hope to see you soon at one of our shows (hearing audiences also welcome)!