How Idaho theaters welcome spectators with disabilities

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

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

This is where accessibility features like subtitles and performers come into play, giving people with disabilities a better experience in theaters, cinemas and concert halls.

“We’ve had several deaf people who have said it makes such a difference that they continue to get involved in different ways and really appreciate that thoughtfulness,” said LaVona Andrew, coordinator of the “Signing Shakespeare” program at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival.

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

The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects job prospects for sign language interpreters to increase by 24% nationwide by 2030, making it one of the fastest growing occupations in the country. Over the next eight years, the BLS expects nearly 20,000 jobs for interpreters to open.

Take a quick look at your favorite entertainment venues and you will find that many venues are implementing these features in most of the shows.

“Signing Shakespeare” started in 2010 to add a new access point for some audience members. In 2018, the Festival added real-time subtitles to its theater.

As of now, the Festival is working to bring sign language interpreters and real-time subtitles into every show.

But with understaffing, COVID-19 outbreaks, and difficult seating arrangements, it’s not always possible to offer these features to the public. This problem peaked during his recent performance of the musical, Ain’t Misbehavin ‘.

“We don’t have the ability to do an interpretive performance afterward because we had already filled in the sections we would normally have held so that our deaf and hard of hearing audience could see the performers and really enjoy that experience,” Hannah Read Newbill, Marketing Director of the Festival

Under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990theaters must make an effort to accommodate deaf, hard of hearing, blind and visually impaired visitors.

Most locations meet the requirements, but they often don’t do enough to make the experience fair.

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

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

Furthermore, creating an interpretation requires a lot of planning in advance, even for people who need the services.

Attendees wishing to use services such as interpreters or subtitles often request them on short notice, putting theaters in trouble. If the services are not offered universally, it is possible that.

“[Theaters] they have to look for those resources, prepare a script, give the interpreters time to prepare,says the snow.

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

Accommodations like this, however, aren’t just for people with disabilities. People with no hearing or vision problems can benefit from accessibility services.

“We have people who buy season tickets for the starring nights and sit a little further away, so they’re not in the deaf section to take their seats, but they do it because they feel it improves the show for them too,” Andrew said. He said the additional benefit is not expected; it is purely coincidental.

While accessibility features still vary from location to location, ensuring that everyone can enjoy live entertainment brings the world of people with different abilities a little closer.

“The deaf community loves to be involved in the arts, just as any member of the hearing community would, as well as any type of entertainment,” Snow said.

“I believe that if it is accessible to one part of the community, it should be accessible to all.”

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