Jay Alan Zimmerman: I am Jay Alan Zimmerman. My signing name looks like this: just use your pinky to draw a big “J” in the sky and give it some flair at the end. I am a writer and a composer who became Deaf, in part, because of my exposure on September 11, 2001 and that, of course, was a difficult transition, but becoming Deaf was the best thing that ever happened to me. It has really opened up my world. I write musicals and plays, and I incorporate the broader disability community, not just the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community. I also consult and help develop new technologies for access like vibration wearables, music visualizers, personal device captioning, and augmented reality captioning. I’m very excited to be with you today and to change the world!
Christine Toy Johnson: Thank you. We’re going to change the world! I want to start this conversation about representation and access. It’s a very large topic, I realize, but I wondered if you could tell us what representation means to you and some ways you see access [could be] broadened.
Jay Alan Zimmerman: Yes. It means a lot to me to be represented and included, and to see Deaf and Disabled performers on stage and Deaf/Disabled creators backstage. But people like me can’t participate without access. I’m a member of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop now, and people have to type for me. New Dramatists provided captioning for me when I did their Composer-Librettist Program, and that’s the only way I can learn how to become a better writer. Without access, I can’t even go to shows. For years I would beg every theatre artist that I know, “Can you send me a script?” so that I could see new work. I tried to create access for myself, and that is a great, big burden to take on.
You mentioned the organization Apothetae earlier. That is actually the name of a mountain where ancient cultures would take their disabled babies and throw them off the mountain. So, it’s not just that we’ve been ignored; we’ve not even been allowed to exist.
I have three action items that would change my world tomorrow if everybody here would commit to them and start spreading them.
1 The first thing is to please commit to only doing your shows in spaces that are ADA compliant. We’ve had over 30 years to get this right, and it is still an issue. For a person who is Deaf, Hard of Hearing, or Disabled, when we hear about your show, the first thing we think of is fear. Are we going to have access? Are we going to be able to get in? We’ll call the theatre, “Is your space ADA compliant?” “Yeah, my theatre’s ADA compliant. There’s just one step outside the building.” A six-inch step is enough to prevent a wheelchair user from getting inside. So, I would like every writer, every agent, every publisher, every person in the theatrical community to commit: do not produce, rehearse, or even license your shows to venues that are not ADA compliant, and then that will force these venues to finally get on the ball after 30 years. That’s the first action.
2 Second, I would love for you to think of us from page to stage. Imagine us being included not only in your cast but also in your audience. For example, I wish every writer would stop formatting their scripts for paper. You know most people don’t use paper anymore. Why is this a barrier? Eventually, with whatever you’re writing, the dialogue is going to become captions for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and your descriptions will become audio descriptions for the blind. So, you could be a partner in this by writing your scripts without paper formatting, just stop indenting and styling everything, use a simple syntax like fountain.io.
And all of you who write musical theatre, please stop using all-cap lyrics. This is the standard form that came along in the ‘40s and ‘50s. It’s not historically the way that lyrics were written, and they are difficult to read as captions. THEY LOOK LIKE SHOUTING. You would think it would be simple to convert all-cap lyrics into poetry-case lyrics, but there are too many proper nouns and places where you need capital letters, and the only person who knows for sure is you, the writer.
3 The third thing that would change my world is to add an accessibility designer to your production team. We in the theatre have turned everything into an artform. We started with sets and costumes; we turned those into design fields. When we created electric lighting, we made lighting design. When we created electric amplification, we created sound design. It’s time to do accessibility design. If that’s part of your production, you have already budgeted for it at the beginning as a line item: accessibility design. That means that you can include performers who are Deaf, Hard of Hearing, Disabled. You won’t go, “Oh no, now we need to find a budget to pay for the interpreter,” because you’ve already budgeted it. You already have someone on your team who’s thinking about accessibility for your Deaf/Disabled cast and crew, and then for the audience you can turn accessibility into art.
Right now, what we have legally from the ADA is called “accommodations.” What is an accommodation? We are having this program on video. Why? To accommodate everybody who can see. That’s accommodating your vision. I’m trying to speak clearly for you, so I’m accommodating everybody who can hear. Disability accommodations are legally put on the venue which means it’s controlled by the front-of-house instead of back-of-house.
But if you add an accessibility designer (which is a term I made up!), then schools will start creating training for accessibility designers, and people will start getting really innovative and creative. How can we not only accommodate these audiences but also give them a really exciting theatrical experience? You as the writer will go, “There is a joke here. I want everyone to laugh at the same time, so if we put a little dot-dot-dot in the captions and then the punchline is on the next caption screen, Deaf and Hard of Hearing people will laugh at the same time as hearing people.” You’re the only ones who know that. The venue doesn’t know that, the venue usually doesn’t care; the venue just wants to meet the baseline legal standards. If you take responsibility and control over accessibility, then you can make it artful so that everyone has an amazing experience.