‘Hamilton’ Lawsuit Turns Spotlight on Broadway Accessibility

Broadway accessibility Hamilton lawsuit
Joan Marcus

A lawsuit brought against the producers of “Hamilton” and the owners of the theater in which it’s playing has turned attention to issues of accessibility for disabled Broadway theatergoers — an often-overlooked subject where real accommodation and good intentions can meet murky questions of demand and execution.

The class action suit filed earlier this month in the Southern District Court of New York alleges “systemic civil rights violations” against blind and visually-impaired theatergoers, an accusation prompted when plaintiff Mark B. Lasser, a blind theatergoer from Denver, Colo., contacted the “Hamilton” box office about audio description services and was told none were available. That violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the suit.

Broadway does have multiple accessibility programs in place, as highlighted by a partnership between the Broadway League, the producers’ trade association, and Theatre Development Fund, the New York nonprofit that also operates the TKTS booth. Wheelchair-friendly seat locations, captioning and sign language interpretation for the hearing impaired, autism-friendly performances, and audio description for the visually impaired are all available. Last year, the League and TDF teamed to launch Theater Access NYC, an online resource for theatergoers looking for performances presented with accessibility services.

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But while some services are on-demand and available at any performance — such as wheelchair seats and private iCaption devices — others, like sign-language interpretation and autism-friendly shows, are only available intermittently. Not all productions make all options available, and audio description for the visually impaired, the service that is at the root of the “Hamilton” lawsuit, is among the least-implemented on Broadway.

“Hamilton,” however, isn’t the only show not to offer audio description — not by a long shot. According to the Theater Access NYC website, only four productions over the next 30 days offer audio description: “Aladdin,” “The Book of Mormon,” “The Lion King” and “Wicked.”

Privately, Broadway producers all express the best of intentions: Everyone, after all, wants more people to be able to attend their show. But during the often chaotic, high-pressure months around a production’s opening, accessibility accommodations often fall to the bottom of a long to-do list, and, some producers add, it only makes sense to spend the money on accommodations once it’s clear a show is successful enough to run for a while. It can also be a challenge figuring out which services (like sign language interpretation or “open caption” supertitles) are wanted how often. (Producers for “Hamilton” had no comment on the current litigation.)

The wording of the ADA, which doesn’t get much more specific than requiring “reasonable” accommodations for those with disabilities, can also be something of a gray area, according to some in the industry. Advocates for people with disabilities, of course, refute that: “Twenty percent of the American populace has a disability, and it is incumbent on Broadway shows, Off Broadway shows, regional shows and touring shows to make themselves accessible,” said Howard Sherman, the senior strategy consultant at the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts. “This is reasonable.”

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Relatively speaking, audio description isn’t too costly to implement, according to Mark Annunziato of Sound Associates, the company that specializes in, among other things, devices for translation, assistive listening and audio description. The technology infrastructure for the theater, if it isn’t there already, can be purchased by theater owners for between $20,000 and $30,000, while the production of a pre-recorded audio description track can ring in at about $5,000, give or take, in a process that usually includes re-editing and rerecording when new cast and crew members rotate in. (Another option is audio description done live in real-time,  but so far Broadway has favored prerecording.)

Because “Hamilton” isn’t alone in lacking audio description offerings, the singling out of that particular show — the theater industry’s headline-grabbing megasmash — seems strategic. Attorney for the plaintiff Scott R. Dinin, who’s worked on multiple cases centered around accessibility, points out the suit isn’t pressing for damages, but for the show to comply with the ADA by taking “the steps necessary to provide audio description equipment and live narration services once a week with 25 audio sets for each show in Richard Rodgers Theater for individuals who are blind or visually-impaired.”

“I’m hoping through this lawsuit we can bring all Broadway to the table,” he said.

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  1. The writer has some inaccurate information in this article.

    1-Many people consider “hearing impaired” an offensive term. The appropriate wording is “people with hearing loss” or “people who are hard of hearing.”

    2-Captioning is not regularly available at most theaters. It is provided through the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) only when the tickets are discounted, and Hamilton is one of the few shows that offers such discounts.

    3-I-Caption hand-held devices are NOT a good way to display captions. Sound Associates is eager to promote these devices, since they are very profitable. However, holding a device throughout the show is hardly comfortable, and it is difficult to read captions on a small device while simultaneously watching the show, especially for patrons who need reading glasses. Are people supposed to flip their glasses up and down? Instead, open captions by the stage should be regularly available, similar to what is offered by Stagetext in the United Kingdom.

    4- Sound Associates wants infrared devices to be used in theaters for both audio description (used by people with visual impairments) and assistive listening (used by people with hearing loss), because the company charges a lease fee for the system and receivers. But there is a better option for people with hearing loss. Nederlander—unlike other theaters—installed an induction loop assistive listening system for people with hearing loss, who don’t need to use receivers with this type of system if their hearing aids or cochlear implants have a telecoil (2/3 of hearing aids and all cochlear implants are so equipped). Headsets are available for people with a mild hearing loss who can use them.

    People with hearing loss should not be required to wear receivers because another disability population needs to use them, but Sound Associates has REFUSED to install loops. Why should they? Once a loop is installed, they lose part of their very profitable infrared system lease.

    5-All of this is complicated by the fact that Playbill, which controls the distribution of show information in the theater, will not include an explanation on how to use the assistive listening and audio description systems unless a fee is paid.

    So people with disabilities have been hold hostage because of money… Follow the money…

    Janice S Lintz, CEO/Founder, Hearing Access & Innovations

  2. Jerry Bergman says:

    For the record, the writer is wrong to state that “some services are on-demand and available at any performance — such as wheelchair seats and private iCaption devices.”

    Yes, iCaption devices are currently available on demand — BUT only for these five shows: “Aladdin,” “Book of Mormon,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Lion King” and “Wicked.” For every other show, those like me who have severe hearing loss cannot understand either dialogue or song lyrics when using the assistive listening devices made available.

    A few of us active in the Hearing Loss Association of America and the cause of hearing accessibility are beginning to work with some leaders of the Broadway community toward the widespread availability of captioning in the near future — so that all those with deafness and hearing loss will be able to attend the shows of their choice on the dates of their choice. That date is not yet here, but hopefully is just around the corner.

  3. Rob Standford says:

    This is ridiculous. While Hamilton might be able to afford it given that tickets are /currently/ going for a few hundred, it is not a reasonable benchmark for a theater that sells tickets at 40$ a pop. 0.3% of the populace are legally blind. So a show must payout 5000$ per show (Which would take 125 people to pay off at 40$) to accommodate a fraction of a percent of the populace? Most shows barely have the budget to put on the initial performance and its only afterwards that such things can become affordable if they are wildly successful. 5000$ to build a ramp that will last 20 years to help the disabled is fair, 5000$ every three or four months is not. Don’t use highly successful outliers to justify absurd lawsuits. Something reasonable must be so for the average performance, not the extraordinary.

    • Jerry Bergman says:

      Mr. Standford’s mindset helps explain why so many people are totally clueless about providing accessibility for people with disabilities. His view seems to be that our society should accommodate people’s disabilities on the basis of cost. So if you happen to be blind instead of mobility impaired, forget about being able to go to the theater.

      If show producers and theater owners all committed to descriptive audio, demand and competition for the service would drive down the cost — and accelerate research to yield new and improved technology.

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