Hiram College

Alexia Kemerling, senior creative writing major, discusses her disability advocacy work on campus and how creative uses of technology can solve accessibility problems.

As a kid I often grew bored with TV and movies. I struggled to catch names of characters and keep up with plots. Then I discovered subtitles.

I’ve worn hearing aids since age five, and while technology helps me hear most everyday sounds, understanding dialogue can sometimes be difficult. While some people consider subtitles “distracting,” for me they are the opposite—subtitles mean equal access, inclusion.

Over the years, I’ve found myself avoiding theaters. I won’t deny the magic of watching actors bring a story to life on stage, but I get frustrated when my hearing loss prevents me from participating. Sitting quietly in a row of my chatting friends during intermissions, I often felt as though I’d been excluded from an inside joke shared across the whole audience.

In the spring of 2019, during a Garfield Presidency Scholars’ trip, I attended a showing of Grand Hotel at Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia. As we took our seats, the familiar dread of having to strain to hear filled my stomach. Then, while flipping through the playbill, a pink sheet of paper fell into my lap. The paper advertised a free app that provided live captions for the production. I was in awe. During the play I sat leaned forward, elbows on knees, holding my phone just below eye-level, enamored with the experience.

Long after the curtains closed at Signature Theater that night, I mulled over the experience in my mind. Using a smartphone app to curate live subtitles seemed ingenious. I was determined to replicate it in Hiram’s very own Black Box theater for the 2019 fall production of Stepping Out.

As the timing of scenes often varies in amateur productions, having a subtitles video wouldn’t work. If the video got ahead or behind, viewers would be lost. We needed something manual, open to variation, yet dependable.

Trained professionals can provide live speech-to-text, known as Communication Access Real-Time Translation (CART). However, these services can be costly and Hiram College’s Disability Services Office does not typically provide financial assistance for accommodations if the event is not for academic credit.

One reason I love accessibility work is because it requires creative thinking. Looking at a situation from the perspective of a disabled person pushes you to invent new ways of communicating, interacting, and experiencing the world. Planning for accessibility cultivates innovation. In fact, you can thank the perspectives of disabled folks for many of the technologies you enjoy today. Did you know texting stemmed from technology designed for the deaf?

I wanted to show that accessibility doesn’t need to be expensive; most accommodations are possible with a little time and thoughtfulness.

I’ve gained experience with lots of apps thanks to iPads provided through Hiram’s Tech & Trek program. I immediately thought of the Nearpod app, which allows teachers to broadcast PowerPoint presentations to students’ personal devices. Students can either follow along on their screen by going to the website or by downloading the free app and entering the presentation’s unique code. To me, the app’s most useful feature was this: the person operating the “teacher mode” has full control over advancing the slides. Students cannot click forward or backward themselves; their screens change when the teacher’s does.

I envisioned a few lines per slide, subtitle style, and a singular tech person manually advancing the slides as the show progressed. I pitched my idea to the theater department, Student Senate, the Diversity Committee, and others. People raised questions about legality and concerns about the project’s feasibility.

Recent rulings on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) served as a reminder that accessibility is the expectation at public events, including theater performances, and including events hosted at private colleges. Still, we have a long way to go before accommodations stop being viewed as “special” and including disabled people becomes the standard, not the inspirational exception.

I enlisted the help of Litsa Varonis, an instructional designer, who I knew as an accessibility ally on campus. Together we worked to digitize the script, translate it into a PowerPoint presentation, and finally, import it into Nearpod.

Varonis and Brittany Jackson, assistant director of strategic academic initiatives and study away coordinator, tested the process at a dress rehearsal.

We offered the service at the November 8 showing of Stepping Out. At the ticket desk, a sign encouraged folks to ask for an “access code” for captions. With my code in hand, I took a seat in the front-row section reserved for caption-users. I joined several other audience members in plugging the code into the Nearpod app and soon white letters against a black background reading “Act I” filled screen. I used my iPad, others used their smartphones.

While the actors tap-danced, argued, cried, and gossiped on stage, the captions brought the full experience to hard-of-hearing audience members. Sitting in the corner, Varonis advanced the screens in sync with the show, a puppet master of subtitles.

I felt elated that my months-long dream had become a reality. This would not have been possible without the support and hard work of Varonis, my fellow accessibility advocates Erica Lohan, Brett Bentkowski and Matt Mitchell, and others in the Hiram community.

Using technology in an innovative way, we’ve created a streamlined and cost-efficient process, ensuring a future for this feature. Captions are on the rise and small theaters are no exception.

Some might attribute the growing prevalence of captions to increased rates of hearing loss. Yet, many of my hearing friends love subtitles, too. So perhaps it’s time to start mainstreaming accessibility and embracing the wisdom of deaf designer Elsie Roy, “When we design for disability, everyone benefits.”