MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And now to Broadway, where the biggest theater chain is now accessible to deaf and hearing-impaired patrons for free through their smartphones. That's a big deal because an estimated 48 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss. Jeff Lunden reports that, by summer, all of Broadway will follow suit.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: At a recent matinee of "The Band's Visit" on Broadway, a message tells the audience in English, Hebrew in Arabic to turn their cellphones off. But Jerry Bergman of The New York Chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America was keeping his phone on so he could read closed captions while watching the show.
JERRY BERGMAN: You need to put the phone in airplane mode and scroll down to the show. There you are, "Band's Visit." And you can adjust the size like that. You could also adjust the brightness.
LUNDEN: Bergman's a native New Yorker who wasn't born hearing impaired, but he says as his hearing deteriorated, he found going to the theater frustrating. He and his advocacy group wanted to do something about it.
BERGMAN: We were considering legal action against the Broadway theater community when we received a phone call from someone at the Shubert asking if we'd be interested in collaborating with them, consulting with them to develop captioning access. Of course, it was music to our ears, no pun intended.
LUNDEN: Up until 15 years ago, deaf theatergoers in New York only had occasional access to sign-language performances says Robert Wankel, president of the Shubert Organization, which owns 17 Broadway theaters.
ROBERT WANKEL: We did try to make other seats available that may give people a little bit of access, but we really didn't have the technology, so it was really a sign performance or nothing.
LUNDEN: In 2003, one Broadway theater began offering closed-caption devices to patrons who requested them. Within a few years, most others followed. But access was limited to the number of units each theater had. Kyle Wright, who spearheaded the current accessibility initiative for the Schuberts in the Broadway League, which represents producers and theater owners, says now anyone with a smartphone can enjoy a show.
KYLE WRIGHT: We can accommodate one person. We can accommodate groups of people because we're not relying on having enough technology in hand to facilitate this. So we don't just have 10 or 20, we have as many as people want to use in their own devices.
LUNDEN: The free app called GalaPro was developed by an Israeli tech startup company. CEO Yonat Burlin describes how it works.
WRIGHT: The services that we provide are either captions or subtitles which are written on a black screen. And we've developed the app in a way that that black screen doesn't disturb anyone else around them. There's no backlight. There's no flashing. There's no messages coming in because the phone is on airplane mode.
LUNDEN: It also has voice-recognition software says the Schubert's Kyle Wright.
WRIGHT: We load a script into a computer that then learns to hear those words. So if an actor stops, it stops. If an actress skips 20 pages, God forbid, it escapes with it. If it skips back, it skips with it. And this becomes very important in shows like with John Leguizamo who, by virtue of being a one-man show, jumps around based on the audience.
LUNDEN: By July, every theater on Broadway will offer the app. And before too long, its developers say it will be able to provide audio description for blind and low-vision patrons in addition to closed captioning. In the end, Jerry Bergman is happy he didn't have to file a lawsuit.
BERGMAN: We have a saying - please don't do for us, do with us. And the reason is that the hearing loss was spectrum ranges from the casual person who can put on a headset who doesn't even wear hearing aids to people like myself who are severe to profoundly hearing impaired and almost deaf without our hearing aides. So, you know, this is a solution that we helped bring about in a way that works for everybody, including the deaf community. That's wonderful.
LUNDEN: Audience members can check out the Theater Access NYC website to find out which shows currently offer the app. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
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