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Israeli Start-up Revolutionizes Tony Awards For Those With Hearing And Vision Loss

By Maya Margit | The Media Line

May 30, 2018

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For the first time, the GalaPro mobile application will make the live show accessible to everyone

Looking down at your phone during a live show is usually considered bad form, but an Israeli start-up working in collaboration with Broadway theaters not only permits such behavior, it actively encourages it.

Now, for the first time, GalaPro is teaming up with the Tony Awards to make the popular theater awards show accessible to people with hearing and vision loss. The mobile app—already placed in roughly 30 Broadway venues—uses voice recognition technology to provide on-demand closed captioning for the hearing-impaired and descriptive narration for the blind.

“We will be providing live captioning services in English for the [Tonys] and everyone will be able to see the captions live on their own phone through our app,” Dr. Elena Litsyn, Co-founder and President of GalaPro, told The Media Line, adding that the start-up aims to make theater and live entertainment “more accessible and inclusive.”

Founded in 2015, the Israel-based tech company first gained popularity on Broadway after partnering with the Shubert Organization—one of the largest theater operators in New York City—to provide services to patrons with impairments. Since then, GalaPro has installed its technology in the majority of Broadway theaters and aims to expand into other markets across the United States and Canada in the coming years.

For Dr. Litsyn, an avid theatergoer, the idea of providing live translations, closed captioning and auditory descriptions on smartphones first crossed her mind during trips abroad. “I spend a lot of time attending theater and opera around the world and it dawned on me at an opera in Paris where I couldn’t see the subtitles hanging over the stage,” she told The Media Line. “I thought to myself: there must be a better way to do it.”

The GalaPro app, which is free to download, is unique in its ability to provide a better live-entertainment experience for those with disabilities.

“We get the script ahead of time, we prepare the content—be it translations or closed captions—and then we use voice recognition technology to sync everything in real-time,” Yonat Burlin, CEO of GalaPro, explained to The Media Line. “Since our current expertise is with pre-scripted [shows], at the Tonys we will have a stenographer on site to make sure everything that is output to the app [is accurate].”

The popular app appears poised to eventually replace translators and interpreters, though Burlin argued the technology would not put people out of work and is instead intended to be an added benefit because most live shows presently provide like-services only occasionally.

“What GalaPro does is give people who need these services the flexibility to come to every show that they want,” Burlin elaborated. “We need [translators] to prepare the content and they are not usually brought into shows on a regular basis. [Theaters] are still going to have [to bring in] ASL interpreters because they serve a different part of the community [of persons with disabilities].”

Jerry Bergman, Founder and Chairman of the Hearing Accommodation Task Force of New York who himself suffers from an auditory impairment, called the app a “major breakthrough” and believes it has revolutionized the theater industry for those with hearing loss.

“I’ve used GalaPro’s closed captioning app at several Broadway shows,” he conveyed to The Media Line. “It enables me to understand dialogue and song lyrics I otherwise cannot because of my severe hearing loss. The infrared assisted listening systems that have been available in Broadway theaters for many years are mostly for people with less hearing loss.”

The issue of accessibility in the live entertainment industry is one that is often overlooked but that has also resulted in a slew of thorny legal proceedings in the United States. Last year, for example, a visually-impaired theatergoer sued the producers of the Tony Award-winning Broadway show Hamilton after its box office admitted it did not provide audio description services.

“In most places, especially the U.S., [accessibility services] are actually a legal requirement,” Burlin asserted, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights law that forbids discrimination based on disability.

Initially, GalaPro had to contend with the taboo of bringing mobile phones into the theater, but this was soon remedied given several of the app’s key features. While the app is in use, for instance, the smartphone’s screen is dimmed so that the captions are visible only to the person holding the phone. Additionally, the app works only when smartphones are in airplane mode in order to avoid disturbing the audience with potentially noisy notifications.

“Broadway and many other theaters were quick to embrace us, understanding the potential [this technology] has for them to bring more people into the theater and ultimately sell more tickets,” Dr. Litsyn concluded. “Cultural access is a basic need and right.”

The 72nd Tony Awards will be held at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on June 10.

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