Theatres failing to provide good-quality subtitles when they stream performances are further isolating D/deaf audiences during lockdown, a charity has warned, as it urges companies to consider how accessible their online work is.
Melanie Sharpe, chief executive of Stagetext, which provides and advocates for captioning in theatre, is encouraging venues to make any digital content accessible for the 11 million people in the UK who are D/deaf or hard of hearing.
More than two and a half million people watched a subtitled version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera last month – 20% of its total online audience – which Sharpe said was testament to the demand for captioned work.
"It’s something we’ve been trying to raise awareness about for years. If you subtitle things, people will use them. It’s not just about D/deaf and hard of hearing access, it’s about equality.
"If you publicise it and do it regularly, it becomes part of the fabric of someone’s social life. We have no alternatives at the moment in terms of going out, so watching something and having it subtitled is going to impact positively on somebody’s well-being," she said.
However, Sharpe said that when approached by Stagetext, some organisations claimed they did not have the budget to offer subtitled content in the current circumstances, while others had admitted to the charity that they had not considered access when preparing to put work online.
"I think people have a moral obligation to ensure that all members of society are included in accessing arts and culture. The arts are a way of making sense of the world, especially in these times. If you’re going to be excluded, for the want of not very much money in the great scheme of things, it’s outrageous," she said.
Stagetext advocates for accessible subtitles, which are verbatim to what is being said, include sound effects, accents, offstage sounds and music cues, and are formatted so they are easy to read.
Stagetext said that lower-quality subtitles may be verbatim but miss out sound and music cues or are difficult to process, while some provide automatically generated captions, which use speech recognition software and often result in errors.
Sharpe said she thought some theatres had been "caught on the hop", and had not considered how they could make their digital work accessible, or had offered captions that ended up being more confusing than no captions at all.
"There was a big rush to get things up online, which we understand and aren’t knocking it, but then people take a breather and think, actually, people are starting to ask: why is this not accessible?
"We have had some very large organisations who just say they don’t have the budget at this time, and I question that if I’m honest," she said.
She urged theatres to be proactive and engage with access charities such as Stagetext about the help or advice they offer.
"If you do captioning anyway, you have an audience that you know are D/deaf and hard of hearing, so just think about how you are going to serve that audience. It’s about being aware of the reach of subtitles.
"For us, we will always do it for D/deaf and hard of hearing people. However, the world is changing – people are watching things on public transport, and subtitles help with that. If you’ve got someone who struggles with concentration or is learning English, or simply if the text is very dense, it helps,’ Sharpe said.
Stagetext is listing online performances that are captioned on its website. More information can be found here.