Humanitarian Award Speech by Arlene Romoff

The following is the acceptance speech text given by Arlene Romoff, for the Theatre Resources Unlimited (TRU) award
that she received on Sunday, November 9, 2008 for her work to promote captioned services at live theatre performances.
The ceremony hosted by TRU was held at Carolines on Broadway in New York City.

I’d like to thank Bob Ost, and Theatre Resources Unlimited for this honor, and offer my congratulations to Ken Davenport on his award as well. I’d also like to thank all my friends and family, and colleagues, for coming today to share this exciting honor with me. As many of you know, advocating for open captioning of live theatre performances has been my “passion” for many years – driven by the simple reality that as my hearing declined, I didn’t want to lose yet another of life’s pleasures – going to the theatre.

But many of you probably don’t know my story – or even much about hearing loss, so this looks like a good time to give you the five minute short course.

Hearing loss is probably the most complex and misunderstood of all disabilities. I should tell you right now that I’m totally Deaf, and I’m hearing you through the miracle of my cochlear implants. Left side for 11 years, right side – one month! I was born with normal hearing and didn’t start to lose my hearing until my early adult years. Each year, though, I lost more and more hearing, until 25 years later, I had virtually none at all. 

As my hearing declined, I began to use the assistive listening devices in the theatre, but by the 1980’s, that wasn’t sufficient, so my husband (who has normal hearing) and I stopped going to Broadway shows. We still kept our subscription to the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ - since we always went with other couples, and it was a social thing to do. Paper Mill would seat me front row, so I could lip read better, and then they would send me scripts, to read in advance. I was holding on by a thread – but it was becoming too tedious to keep this up. And it certainly wasn’t a pleasant theatre going experience. Paper Mill ran sign language interpreted performances. But I didn’t know sign language, and neither did anyone I knew. Like the vast majority of people with hearing loss, I relied on my residual hearing, hearing aids, assistive devices, and captioning. There’s a pervasive myth that most people with hearing loss use sign language and need interpreters, but the reality is that only about 2% of the population with hearing loss actually uses sign language. So there were a lot of people like me out there whose needs were not being accommodated.

It seemed to me that if Paper Mill could provide interpreters in front of a section of the orchestra, then they could certainly provide the text on an LED screen. So in 1995, I asked the court reporter who had been doing realtime captioning for me at meetings – and who happens to be doing the captioning now the following question: “Don, do you think you could load an entire script in your computer and display it line by line in synch with a live performance?”

The rest, as they would say, is history. But it took what I call my “hearing angels” to get this done. And many of them are right here in this room! Paper Mill started open captioning in 1996, and the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) started arranging open captioned performances in 1997, debuting on Broadway with Christopher Plummer in “Barrymore.” I got my first cochlear implant right after that.

Three years later, in 2000, the League for the Hard of Hearing paired up with TDF and arranged a theatre tour of London, and open captioning  made its debut on the West End. At the end of that comedy, my British colleague commented that we were all able to “LOFF” together! He founded the organization, STAGETEXT, the next year, also dedicated to captioned live theatre performances.

My friends with hearing loss have asked me to emphasize that without captioning, we don’t just struggle with theatre, we stay home, along with our family and friends.  While you would never think to exclude someone with a wheelchair, and actively seek to provide ramps for people with hearing loss, captioning is our ramp! Without it, we are as excluded as that person in a wheelchair at  the base of a staircase.

So essentially, we are a rather large untapped audience. Since TDF started arranging open captioned performances, they’ve sold over 36,000 tickets to Broadway and off-Broadway shows. More regional theatres have started providing captioned performances. I’ve been to the Kravis Center, the Broward Center, the Kennedy Center, the Guthrie Theatre, Westport Country Playhouse, Yale Rep, to name a few.

I know from my networking as the NJ state leader of the Hearing Loss Association of America, that my counterparts all over the country want to know how they, too, can get captioning started in their theatres and performing arts centers in places like Atlanta, Denver, Lancaster, Seattle, Tampa, Jacksonville, and on and on. They are staying home, but would love to be able to attend live theatre performances, knowing that they won’t miss a word.

And there still aren’t regularly scheduled captioned performances in New York, just the selected offerings provided by TDF.

I should mention, too, that the baby boomers are coming of age and they were raised on rock concerts and are getting their first hearing aids. Open captioning is “universal access”. It helps everyone because it is just “there”! I also might mention my husband’s comment after seeing MISS SAIGON with captions at Paper Mill – “so that’s what they were singing about!” And don’t even ask me about CATS!

So now you know what the open captioned live theatre agenda is all about, just a lot of people with hearing loss wanting to experience the joy of live theatre.

My heartfelt thanks to TRU once again. Working with you to make this event accessible to my friends and to me has been wonderful and memorable. 

Award inscription:

2008 TRU HUMANITARIAN AWARD

to pioneer and advocate Arlene Romoff
for breaking the sound barrier in live theatre