Caption glasses aid the deaf and hard of hearing

Caption glasses aid the deaf and hard of hearing

MALVERN, Pa. —Deaf in one ear and significantly hard of hearing in the other, Cheryl Johnson does not go to the theater unless she gets great seats.

Understanding the actors is a perennial struggle even from up close. And if another audience member coughs or opens a crinkly bag of chips, forget it.

That is why she signed up to test new, high-tech caption glasses at People’s Light theater in Malvern. As actors spoke each line in a recent performance of “Dot,” a play by Philadelphia native Colman Domingo, the words appeared on the inside of her lenses —across the bottom so as not to block her view of the stage.

No more leaning over to whisper “What’d he say?” to the person sitting next to her. No more missed punchlines.

“With these glasses, I can laugh with the rest of them,” the West Philadelphia woman said.

Many stage productions offer “open” captions, meaning the words are displayed on a screen to one side of the stage or hung from above so all patrons can see them. But typically this option is offered at a limited number of shows, or at less popular times. Personal “closed” caption devices, available in movie theaters for years, are less common in live performances. And they tend to be the handheld variety, requiring the viewer to look back and forth from device to stage throughout the show. That is especially tricky for those who are near- or far-sighted.

People’s Light is among the first U.S. theaters to offer caption glasses, which display text in clear, adjustable fonts and can be worn on top of regular eyeglasses.

Fifty people with some degree of hearing loss tried them out for two weeks of “Dot,” and they will be offered to the general public starting in January with the theater’s production of “The Children.” There is no charge to use the glasses, of which the theater has a dozen pairs. They can be reserved online in advance, or requested the same day if still available.

The model used at the Malvern theater is a $1,200 off-the-shelf product made by Epson, with customized software developed over the past two years at the National Theatre in London.

The script is loaded onto a computer server and programmed to jump from line to line in response to the actors’ voices, said technical project manager Tim Middleton, who came from London earlier this month to help demonstrate the technology. The lines also advance in response to lighting and audio cues.

The Malvern theater started looking into the glasses at the invitation of Lisa Sonneborn, director of media arts and culture at Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities, who had heard about the National Theatre’s effort.

Sonneborn said she thought of People’s Light because the theater has long been a leader in offering accessible performances for audience members with various needs, such “relaxed” shows where those on the autism spectrum can talk or move about.

The Malvern theater and Temple obtained an initial $50,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, enabling them to start exploring the idea with the help of the National Theatre. More funds came later from the Barra Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Sonneborn, Marcie Bramucci, director of community investment at People’s Light, and others went to London to try out the technology at a showing of Hadestown.

Even as a person with normal hearing, Sonneborn could see the appeal. At one point, the character Orpheus enters from the back of the theater, so everyone in the audience turns to look. Had the captions been displayed up on the stage instead of on the glasses, Sonneborn would have missed out.

“I would’ve had to make a choice between following the action and looking at the text,” she said.

Some deaf or hearing-impaired people are reluctant to use personal caption devices, either because it makes them stand out in the crowd or the technology is not foolproof, said Neil McDevitt, executive director of the Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre in Swarthmore.

At movie theaters, where caption devices include eyeglasses as well as display screens that are anchored in a cup holder, hearing-impaired patrons can encounter a variety of technical setbacks.

Sometimes the batteries are not charged, or the wireless signal is weak, or the device displays the script from a movie playing in an adjacent theater. And good luck finding a staff member who knows how the fix the problem in a hurry as the movie is getting underway.

“You have to suffer all these little indignities just to get equal access,” said McDevitt, who is not involved in the People’s Light project.

Yet open captions can have drawbacks, too, said Tabitha Allum, another National Theatre employee who worked on the caption-glasses project. British researchers have tracked the eye movements of patrons during open-caption performances, finding that their attention was diverted away from the actors up to half the time.

Mindful of different preferences, Bramucci of People’s Light said that in addition to offering caption glasses at every performance, the theater will continue to offer open-captioned performances on many occasions.

And should any technical glitches arise with the glasses, trained staff members will be on hand to help people overcome them, she vowed. At the demonstration earlier this month, the devices worked flawlessly. Users could change the font size, color, and text placement with a tap of a finger on a small touch pad. They even could choose whether to have the text scroll or skip from one line to the next.

Johnson, the hearing-impaired woman from West Philadelphia, told visitors at the demo that the technology was a revelation, giving her “freedom.”

Listening to her, Bramucci started to cry.

“I feel like crying, too, Marcie,” Johnson said. “It’s overwhelming to me. It touches my heart.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Whistle Stop Cafe owner Christopher Scott and his sister Melodie are serving sit-down customers in their Mirror diner to protest health restrictions that they say are unfair to restaurants and other small businesses. Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Central Alberta restaurant owner defies health restrictions by serving diners

Whistle Stop Cafe owner says pandemic restrictions unfair to restaurants and small businesses

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said in her daily update on Monday that 362 new COVID cases have been identified and 7,200 tests done in the last 24 hours. (File photo)
COVID-19: UK variant may have entered broader community says Alberta health minister

25 cases of two variants identified in Alberta and one not linked to travel

An ice sculpture of a bee with a timely message was created near the Ross Street Patio. It’s party of a Downtown Business Association initiative to draw more people downtown to support local businesses. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).
Ice sculptures created to draw more people to downtown Red Deer

Three sculptures can be seem at various venues

Lab and x-ray technologist Rebecca Walter demonstrates a new digital radiographic X-ray unit funded by an $850,000 donation. The new unit is at the Sylvan Lake Advanced Ambulatory Care Service.
Photo contributed
New Sylvan Lake X-ray unit up and running

Radiographic x-ray unit made possible by $850,000 donation from Sylvan Lake couple

(Black Press file photo)
Police seeking suspects in Bowden armed robbery

Man was beaten and robbed of his wallet

Terrance Josephson of the Princeton Posse, at left, and Tyson Conroy of the Summerland Steam clash during a Junior B hockey game at the Summerland Arena in the early spring of 2020. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: How much do you know about hockey?

Test your knowledge of Canada’s national winter sport

Toronto Maple Leafs alumni George Armstrong, right, and son of Maple Leafs alumni Syl Apps, Syl Apps Jr., shake hands during a pre-game ceremony before the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets NHL game in Toronto on February 21, 2015. George Armstrong, who captained the Toronto Maple Leafs to four Stanley Cups in the '60s and wore the blue and white his entire career, has died. He was 90. The Maple Leafs confirmed the death Sunday on Twitter. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese
Former Maple Leafs captain George Armstrong dies

Former Maple Leafs captain George Armstrong dies

Green Bay Packers' Adrian Amos pauses after losing the NFC championship NFL football game to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Green Bay, Wis., Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021. The Buccaneers defeated the Packers 31-26 to advance to the Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Aaron Rodgers’ ‘uncertain’ future hangs over Green Bay

Aaron Rodgers’ ‘uncertain’ future hangs over Green Bay

Toronto Argonauts head coach Scott Milanovich calls the plays on the sideline against Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the first half of CFL action in Winnipeg on August 14, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
Scott Milanovich steps down as Edmonton’s head coach to pursue opportunities in NFL

Scott Milanovich steps down as Edmonton’s head coach to pursue opportunities in NFL

Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) goes under Indiana Pacers guards Malcolm Brogdon (7) and Jeremy Lamb (26) to shoot during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Michael Conroy
Brogdon scores 36 points to lead Pacers over Toronto Raptors

Brogdon scores 36 points to lead Pacers over Toronto Raptors

FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2020, file photo, baseballs occupy a bucket after use during fielding practice during spring training baseball workouts for pitchers and catchers at Cleveland Indians camp in Avondale, Ariz. Major League Baseball is suspending all political contributions in the wake of last week's invasion of the U.S. Capitol by a mob loyal to President Donald Trump, joining a wave of major corporations rethinking their efforts to lobby Washington. “In light of the unprecedented events last week at the U.S. Capitol, MLB is suspending contributions from its Political Action Committee pending a review of our political contribution policy going forward,” the league said in a statement to The Associated Press on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
Cactus League asks MLB to delay spring training due to COVID

Cactus League asks MLB to delay spring training due to COVID

Patrick Cantlay, right, bumps fists with Andrew Putman before teeing off on the first hole during the final round of The American Express golf tournament on the Pete Dye Stadium Course at PGA West Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, in La Quinta, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Si Woo Kim holds off Cantlay to win The American Express

Si Woo Kim holds off Cantlay to win The American Express

Danielle Kang winds up to hit her tee shot on the fifth hole during the final round of the Tournament of Champions LPGA golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Jessica Korda rallies to beat Kang in playoff at LPGA opener, Henderson ninth

Jessica Korda rallies to beat Kang in playoff at LPGA opener, Henderson ninth

COVID-19 scare prompts cancellation of Canada-U. S. soccer scrimmage in Florida

COVID-19 scare prompts cancellation of Canada-U. S. soccer scrimmage in Florida

Most Read