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Technology Helps Deaf and Blind Experience Broadway Theater

On June 8, you won't necessarily need vision or hearing to experience the musical “Catch Me If You Can” on Broadway. The Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts is spending $240,000 to outfit four Broadway theaters with two pieces of technology called I-Caption and D-Scriptive that will expand theater-going options for the deaf and the blind. Funding for the Alliance's project, called the Broadway Accessibility/Audience Expansion Initiative, came from a grant from New York City and from the New York City Theater Sub-district Council.

For deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences, I-Caption, will be installed in the theaters, which is a hand-held device that displays text real-time as the actors are speaking and singing. D-Scriptive is an innovation that will aid blind and low-vision theater-goers with audio descriptions of what’s happening onstage — from costumes to sets to lighting effects. Both devices will be automatically synchronized to the theater’s master cueing system.

The Alliance brought in the blind actor and artistic director Christopher G. Roberts to help craft descriptions meaningful to the blind and visually impaired for “Catch Me If You Can.”

“It’s incredibly challenging,” said Roberts. “There are some people who are blind and have no conception [of] what color is. Describing a red or yellow costume is almost pointless. So, I would advise them to add adjectives like 'vibrant green,' or 'exciting yellow' or 'spectacular red,' so you give the color a texture they can understand.”

I-Caption and D-Scriptive were developed by Sound Associates, Inc., a Broadway sound-design firm. The systems are already in place at five theaters, including where "Wicked" and "Billy Elliot" are playing. Producers for those shows paid for the I-Caption and D-Scriptive services, which cost about $40,000 to design and install, according to the company. The high cost has made Broadway shows hesitant to invest in the services, meaning the options for the deaf and the blind on Broadway are few.

“It’s a monetary thing in one sense because the disabled are a huge demographic," said Carl Anthony, who is the director for special services at Sound Associates, Inc. "But on the other end, it's about serving an audience that would otherwise not be able to see your show. The great thing here is with the funding ... we don’t have to wait for it to be a hit, we can set it up immediately and disabled people can see the show no matter what.”

Besides the Neil Simon Theatre where "Catch Me If You Can" is playing, the Alliance said it didn't know which other three theaters would be equipped with I-Caption and D-Scriptive.