I’ve always wanted to be an actor — since I was seven years old. Though many people thought that was impossible for a young Deaf girl, I was encouraged never to let anything stand in the way of my dreams. Fourteen years later, I was standing on a stage with an Academy Award in my hand — the first Deaf actor to receive one. I was honored and humbled.
Now, 30 years after the Oscar, I’ve returned to the stage and I am humbled and honored once again, this time to be part of the groundbreaking Broadway revival of Spring Awakening, the Tony-winning musical as reconceived by Deaf West Theater. With nine Deaf actors, we are making our Broadway debuts, signing in American Sign Language, integrating seamlessly alongside our hearing peers as they sing and sign with us. The best part of all is that we are standing alongside shows like Hamilton and The Color Purple, as part of the giant wave of diversity that has come to Broadway.
But as our show comes to its close, I have had several opportunities to observe that despite how the Broadway community and audiences have embraced us, there is still a long way to go in terms of accessibility for theatergoers who are Deaf or hard of hearing.
Here’s how it goes. I’m able to watch TV, surf the internet on my mobile device or see a film (even opera!) with the benefit of captions. And if I prefer to use a sign language interpreter, there are video relay services and interpreters ready upon request. But as I quickly found out, if I wanted to see a Broadway show, I was told I’d have to wait for an open-captioned performance — often times weeks or months away. And as for sign language interpreters, that option rarely exists at all. Suddenly, I imagined what it must be like for millions of Deaf and hard of hearing people like me who come to New York City and want to see a Broadway show but are told they’d have to make accommodations that hearing people do not.
I know that Deaf and hard of hearing audiences have benefited from the theater community’s efforts by organizations like Hands-On, Roundabout Theatre and TDF to provide sign-interpreted and captioned performances. But the time has come, particularly in light of the success of Spring Awakening, to remove all barriers and include Deaf and hard of hearing audiences. Captioning and interpreters must be available upon request just as they are everywhere else. Anything less is not truly accessible. It’s 2016, and the technology and means are out there to make it happen.
I am so grateful that Broadway has welcomed the Deaf actors of Spring Awakening with open arms. And you can bet, we will be back with many more productions. In the meantime, it is my hope that as diversity continues to expand on Broadway, full and equal access for millions of Deaf and hard of hearing theatergoers will also expand; we cannot wait in silence any longer.