Diversity on stage often means many things, but one of the more forgotten aspects of inclusion is accessibility. The clubs, bars, community centers, breweries, and houses that set up stages for comedians are largely inaccessible to many comedy fans and aspiring jokesmiths, and that goes beyond most venue and stage entrances not being wheelchair accessible.
Just as diversity doesn’t mean representation for one group, accessibility is not limited to just one impairment. Perhaps one of the most overlooked facets is accessibility for the hearing impaired. While live comedy is on hold, comedians have pivoted to digital content utilizing internet staples as Twitter and YouTube while venturing into new frontiers with Zoom and Twitch streams. While digital content might seem more accessible for some, it’s often even less so for the hearing impaired.
Front-facing video master Eva Victor has garnered millions of views with her videos on Twitter with such gems as her “explaining [blank] to my boyfriend” series and her recent Portrait of a Lady on Fire spoof. Those who’ve been following Victor for a while will have noticed the comedian added captions to her videos a while back thanks to a suggestion from deaf model and actor Nyle DiMarco.
“[DiMarco] commented on one of my videos last July asking me to caption for hearing impaired people, then one of my followers, @lvlstothis, made a captioned version of my video—very quickly, it was amazing,” Victor says. “I then decided that for all the videos with dialogue I’d make going forward, I’d add captions.”
To Victor, adding captions to video should be a given. “I’m glad people aren’t being excluded from watching my things if they want to (and now I can be 100% sure the reason people aren’t watching is because they are mad at me).”
Adding captions to filmed and edited video is one way to bridge the gap between artist and fans, but what about live streams?
“People’s access needs are going to be dependent on the individual,” says Hayden Kristal, a deaf comedian and public speaker. Based out of Colorado, Kristal regularly works the college and corporate circuits speaking on intersectional accessibility.
“The art and appeal of stand-up is in the connection with the audience, and without an audience the whole thing just feels off to me.”
It’s not surprising to find most streaming shows do not feature live captioning. While nobody is particularly thrilled at the idea of Zoom and Twitch streams being our one outlet for stand-up, there are more obstacles present than just a palpable awkwardness. Fortunately none of them are insurmountable.
“I understand that most online comedy shows don’t have the budget to provide total access for every show,” Kristal says, “so put contact information somewhere in your show promo and let people know to contact you if they have access needs. Then, and this is critical, do your best to meet those needs.”
While streaming shows are a temporary solution, Kristal often found live, in-person gigs to be impractical.
“It is extremely rare that there are interpreters or any other sort of accommodations provided for any shows, even ones I’m on,” says Kristal. “I’ve never seen a braille or large font menu available. People expect me to lipread in a dark, loud environment, and even under the best of circumstances only about 30% of spoken English can be effectively lipread—the rest is filled in through context and guesswork, kind of like Wheel of Fortune or predictive text, which is exhausting.”
Accessibility presents a unique barrier to entry to comedy in that there is a literal barrier to entry. Representation on stage presents an added challenge to bookers as it’s not enough to just book a disabled comic, but clubs and promoters are often oblivious about accommodating them or unwilling to put in the necessary work to do so.
“I don’t think this is done maliciously or intentionally, but that lack of visibility feeds back into itself,” Kristal says. “People don’t see disabled comics so people don’t book disabled comics.”
Visibility is more than aspirational; it reminds us of what needs to be done to make our resources available to a larger audience.
“Access isn’t about ‘can’ or ‘can’t,’ it’s about ‘how’—instead of saying you can’t afford an interpreter, maybe ask audience members for donations,” Kristal says. “Maybe trade show tickets or march for someone’s services. Get creative with it.”
For 2020 and beyond, digital and in-person, comedy has many blindspots and everyone in the industry needs to take this time to figure out how to fill in these gaps. Despite these weaknesses, Kristal believes comedy is trending in a generally positive direction, one she hopes we continue to push towards.
“Access is not a one size fits all kind of thing,” Kristal says. “Make your commitment to access clear, and do your best to make the accommodations that are requested.”
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.