By Aimée M. Petrin
Aimée M. Petrin is currently the Executive Director at PCA Great Performances in Portland, Maine, prior to that she was the Programming Manager at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, VT.
When the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, a community arts center in Burlington, Vermont, began a project with AXIS Dance Company www.axisdance.org, a physically integrated dance company from Oakland California, I don't think any of us had a clue as to the organizational impact it would have.
With support from New England Foundation for the Arts' Expeditions Program and other vital funders and sponsors, in 2004 the Flynn led a six-site, six-and-a-half-week New England tour of AXIS Dance Company that included a new work by Ann Carlson co-commissioned by the Flynn and other presenting partners. With two years of planning, the project brought together artists, presenters, educational institutions, social service organizations, healthcare professionals and facilities, organizational boards and trustees, community members, arts councils, New England VSA Arts and Centers for Independent Living.
In regards to accessibility often the first things that come to mind are ramps, elevators, wheelchairs, accessible bathrooms, etc. - the so-called "physical barriers."
What we discovered in planning the AXIS dance project however, is that the biggest barrier to accessibility is often not physical barriers, but attitude. As Bonnie Lewkowicz, dancer and a founding member of AXIS, is fond of saying: "You have to ramp up the mind before any of the other ramps of the world will work."
If, despite the best intentions, strides towards greater accessibility are being met with blank stares, panicked looks, or brushed off as something there isn't the time or money to tackle, hit them where it matters - the budget!
Increasing your accessibility is an audience development opportunity -- not a costly, facility retro-fitting, capital project. The gains far outweigh the costs. One in five persons have a disability - that's 20 percent of your potential audience. This figure will only increase as the baby-boomer generation ages. If community members understand the ease with which they can access your organization and participate in your programs, they are more apt to frequent it - and tell their friends.
With many of us in New England operating out of historic venues, it's easy to get caught up inthe physical aspects of access, but there is another dimension to accessibility: programmatic access. Programmatic access speaks to effective communications, services, and event content. Creating promotional materials that are universally designed can be a fascinating challenge for marketing departments and designers. Well-known examples of programmatic access include American Sign Language interpretation, audio description, hearing amplification systems, captioning, and large-print programs.
Accessibility is not one-size-fits-all. When we decided to audio describe our performance of AXIS, an advisor to the project from a local organization of the blind scoffed at the idea. With a smile, I quickly chided him, "Hey, we have enough of a challenge getting audiences for modern dance. We don't need you bad-mouthing it to the entire blind community!" We did go forward with the audio description and learned that perhaps dance is not the best artform for audio description. But in taking the risk, we learned more about audio description than we ever would have had we not tried it and connected with a network of area audio describers.
With language, it is important to be current. Like any other civil rights movement, appropriate language for accessibility is constantly evolving. Right now, "people first" language is prefferred: first make reference to the person, then the disability, if necessary. In other words, it's not "wheelchair people," but "people who use wheelchairs."
- Start by completing an Access Transition Plan. It's an excellent way to formally review what you already do (you may be surprised at how much you already do), areas that need improvement, and create an outline for making advances. State arts councils have ADA staff that can help with this and possibly even recommend (and fund!) a consultant to aid you in the process and inspect your facility. This person can also review your marketing materials to make sure the most appropriate language is used and they are inline with universal design.
- Offer the opportunity for staff, board, and volunteers to tour your facility "walking in someone else's shoes." It is possible to temporarily simulate physical disabilities, such as low vision, loss of hearing and decreased mobility. This should be done with an access consultant so that the experience is respectful, meaningful, and its implications fully understood. We did this as a staff with the artists from AXIS and it was a galvanizing moment in the project.
- Identify a task force of key employees to become the access savvy "go to people" in your organization. It is important to have representatives from across departments, especially senior management, box office, facilities, programs, front-of-house, and marketing. Key staff members will reveal themselves when developing the Access Transition Plan.
- Create an advisory committee of community members with various disabilities who can help you review issues, advise on policy and program decisions, and hear grievances.
- Realize that there are legal requirements and then there are obligations. While legal minimums "get you by," there are additional steps you can take to make your venue and programs as welcoming as possible.
- Do not ASSUME! What you think merits accessible services may not be the case. For example, we mistakenly thought dance did not need ASL because it is primarily a visual artform. But, between related show announcements, possible inclusion of text, music indicators, and post Q"A's there is plenty to be interpreted. Again, use your advisory committee.
- Get a copy of "Design for Accessibility - A cultural Administrator's Handbook". It is a vital resource guide for every organization.
- Realize that much of the legal requirements are open to interpretation and opinions are subjective. There is often more than one right answer and twice as many wrong ones.
- Be open and ready to accept mistakes gracefully. Again, be human.
- Document all of your accessibility work in an organizational log that is available to all staff. This should include your Transition Plan, policies, and communications with consultants, resources, and grievances.
- Do not categorically lump people with disabilities into groups with specific likes and dislikes.
- And again, attitude is first and foremost. You can provide all of the best services, programs, and an accessible venue, but if your ticket seller treats a patron with accessibility requests as a nuisance, you've just negated all of the work you've done.
Where We Are Now
The Flynn's Transition Plan is in place and reviewed annually; we produced using universal design guidelines our first-ever comprehensive brochure outlining our organization-wide accessibility services and distributed it to appropriate organizations and community contacts; we annually include events in our season that are audio described or ASL interpreted; presenting artists with disabilities is a priority; we have a network in our community we can go to for advice (the community advisory committee remains a work-in-progress); staff are encouraged to participate in on-going training regarding ADA compliance and best practices; we've updated our usage polices and work with renters to be more inclusive with the programs they bring to the Flynn; and our outreach efforts are much more meaningful and relevant, going beyond the distribution of discount tickets. While we are very pleased by our growth, we also recognize that this work is ongoing.
The Flynn's marketing department has become one of the fiercest proponents of access, critically reviewing all promotional collateral, focusing on issues of design, language, typesetting (font size, leading, color/contrast), and web navigation. As with any organizational shift, when each department becomes mindful of their own obligations the whole can move forward more efficiently and effectively.
The AXIS project allowed the Flynn and its partners to become more inclusive and accessible in all of our efforts as cultural workers - from physical accessibility to inclusive promotion, residency planning, programming, staffing, and board development. The regional partners created a force greater than any one of us could achieve on our own. We believe the combined effect of increasing awareness and sensitivity in our communities, while building our own capacity as presenters to be more inclusive, truly changed the face of disability in New England.
Working with AXIS challenged us to move beyond our comfort zone and truly examine how we operate and relate to what has become a much wider and more diverse community as well as visiting artists. It helped us realize what we could achieve as an organization.
State arts councils
VSA Arts of New England (each state has a chapter, too)
http://www.adaptiveenvironments.org/neada/tech.php or call toll-free: 1-800-949-4232 (V/TTY)
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