Access to theatre for a deaf person like me is a lottery: an enjoyable night in the auditorium is down to chance and sometimes I have to pay a price for the hassle, in the form of a deposit for hearing technology.
I am mildly deaf, so my needs are quite nuanced. Just a few rows from the front, I am close enough to hear the dialogue. But, as is the case for most deaf and hard of hearing people, the further I move away from the speaker, or the higher I move up, the more I struggle to hear.
Each time, I’m left with the gamble of hoping that my hearing aids will save the day, or I have to rely on stethoscope-like, infrared headsets. These are often found in venues with large rooms, such as courts or theatres, and aren’t without their problems.
If all else fails, most theatres offer discounted access tickets over the telephone, but for obvious reasons, this isn’t the best option either.
It was last year that I fully experienced captioned theatre, from a foreign language performance of Les Damnés at the Barbican in London to Equus and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg at Trafalgar Studios.
Every deaf person has their own needs in the theatre. However, when captions are available at the side of the stage, it offers a back-up for any missed dialogue. Captioned performances are put on at a lot of theatres around the UK, but those who need them are often limited to one specific date in a production’s run.
Venues like London’s Old Vic offer a unique solution, one that I experienced when it came to seeing the extraordinary Lungs. Not only did the theatre’s tailored, online ticketing system remove the need to dial an access line (far from ideal as a deaf person), but it gave me the choice of aisle seats, front row seats and more, to make sure I had the relevant support in place.
Ever since the theatre’s new access arrangements were unveiled post-refurbishment, it has certainly been loud and proud about its new offer – and rightly so. The same goes for the National Theatre in London and its brilliant new smart caption glasses.
Yet, many theatres still aren’t keen to shout about the provisions they have in place for deaf and disabled patrons. The arts charity Stagetext has recently revealed the extent of the problem.
Many theatres still aren’t keen to shout about the provisions they have in place for deaf and disabled patrons
Its State of Theatre Access report in October found that only a quarter of audited UK theatres provide access information (including about captioned performances) on their websites.
Captioning Awareness Week in November did well to remind these venues to have greater communication with the disabled community and to let them know about available support.
As a new decade starts, I want to see a fresh commitment from UK theatres in 2020. Offering captioned performances is a necessary and welcome first step, but – as fellow disability campaigner Ellen Jones once told me – accessibility is an ongoing process.
It’s one thing providing captioned performances, but as Stagetext’s report suggests, engagement with deaf people clearly isn’t happening as much as it should be. This year, let’s see more from UK theatres – more captions, more promotion and more engagement.
Liam O’Dell is a journalist with a special focus on deafness, disability and social media