Live performances : What about people with sensory impairments?

The annual Suidoosterfees is almost upon us here in Cape Town, a celebration of Cape culture and heritage through world class theatre.  This is a time when Capetonians of all cultures, religions and races gather together to experience the performing arts, be it dance, drama or song, which displays, explains, questions and showcases the unique diversity of our heritage.


However, while we say all are welcome, there is a group of people who are effectively excluded from the celebrations: those with hearing loss or visual impairment.


So the short answer to the title question is “no”.

Man with a hearing aid watches a live performance

There is a mistaken belief that wearing a hearing aid or cochlear implant allows the person to hear, period.  These devices are very different from each other.  The hearing aid amplifies the dominant sound and places it directly on the eardrum, meaning that the sound closest to the wearer is what is heard, and not necessarily what is happening on the stage.  This could be the fidgeting of the person sitting next to them, the flipping of the programmes’ pages or even the air conditioning.  Any sudden loud noises like shouts of “Bravo” or applause are also excruciatingly painful to the wearer.  A cochlear implant on the other hand, bypasses the normal workings of the ear and transmits the sound received by the processor directly onto the hearing nerve in the brain.  This is a much better option but it also works best in a controlled environment with very little background noise.  Audience laughter, applause and whistling negate any benefit the implant may have for the wearer.


So can someone with these devices ever be able to hear in such surroundings?  Happily, the answer is a resounding YES!  A fairly simple piece of equipment, an induction loop, may be installed in any venue and allows a user with a telecoil equipped hearing device or a loop receiver/headphones to listen to sound transmitted through a magnetic field without the interference of background noise.  The loop does not interfere with sound generated through speakers nor does it damage other equipment.

A scene from "Hemelruim" showing sub-titles

Another option is sub-titles, similar to those used in operas, which is beneficial to persons with a hearing impairment or deafness. “Hemelruim”, the Afrikaans version of the play “Constellations” by Nick Payne, played during May 2017 at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, using English sub-titles.  This was presumably to afford English speaking audience members the opportunity to understand the Afrikaans text, but was accidently a fantastic help to persons with hearing loss in the auditorium!  Such a simple solution, yet it is the exception instead of the norm.


Someone with a severe visual impairment is similarly cut off from visual performances, like dance.  I have attended several such events and have spent the entire performance whispering a description of the performance into my colleague’s ear so that he can visualise the dancing to fit in with the music he can hear.  Luckily nobody asked me to keep quiet, but I imagine that will happen some day!  There are various systems available which allow users to hear a voice-over of the performance via a local FM receiver broadcast to several headsets.  In this way, someone can “see” the performance without disturbing those in close proximity.


There is currently only one theatre in Cape Town fitted with an induction loop – the Oude Libertas Amphitheatre in Stellenbosch, which we have mentioned in a previous blog.  Other theatres have been approached by the Western Cape Association for Persons with Disabilities and our National Council to consider making their venues more accessible, but have been met with little to no positive response.


Why is this so?  Surely theatres are eager to increase their audience volume and extend the diversity of patrons?  If theatre managements are serious about inclusion of people from all cultures and heritages, serious attention must be given to allowing all patrons to access their facilities, productions and services on an equal basis.


Our culture and heritage relies upon a diverse and equal society.

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