Leadership / 11.11.17
A Commitment to Accessibility
When the cornerstone was laid in 1890 for New York’s Carnegie Hall, nobody would have imagined the barrier that the impressive original staircase could create for people with a physical disability. The massive staircase was removed in the 1920s when the exterior of the building received a facelift. However, it wasn’t until 1986 that elevators were installed inside the prestigious concert hall.
A few years later, in 1990, the United States Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), finally acknowledging, a full century after Mrs. Carnegie put away her silver trowel, that everyone has an equal right to access theaters, stadiums and other public buildings. Since then, Carnegie Hall and hundreds of other venues have renewed their commitment to accessibility.
According to theater executive and passionate audience advocate Nicole Keating, entertainment professionals should always strive to do everything they can so the live event experience is enjoyable and accessible for every guest.
Keating is assistant vice president of business intelligence at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. She shared what she has learned and her own experiences on the Inspiration Stage at the INTIX 2017 conference in New Orleans. Her hope is that that all entertainment industry professionals will embrace a commitment to accessibility.
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In conversation, Nicole shares a legendary story from the Arsht Center that illustrates the kind of thinking that ensures all people, regardless of ability, can access and enjoy the performing arts.
In the early 2000s, the Ziff Ballet Opera House was being constructed as part of the new Arsht Center complex in Florida’s Miami-Dade County. Keating recounts how the project’s architect climbed six stories of scaffolding to check the sightlines from the last row of the venue’s highest tier.
“César Pelli felt it was perfect. Why? Because he knew that the sightlines and accessibility he had designed would allow a high school student who used a wheelchair and wanted to sit there to do so and be just like the rest of the kids,” explains Keating. “He knew that every level of the venue was accessible from the orchestra to the fourth tier so that anyone could create lasting memories of the arts.”
Meeting the needs of all guests
Although Keating’s example serves as a dramatic illustration of how far things have come over the years, venue accessibility goes beyond the way a building is designed and constructed. “Architecture alone is not enough to meet the needs of guests. It takes a knowledgeable and committed staff to continue their education about accessibility and be responsive to the needs of guests. I believe that by listening, caring and doing a little more, we cross the threshold from what is expected so we can make real people’s lives better by giving equal access to everyone, regardless of ability,” she explains.
While it may be tempting to believe your venue is accessible if you have removed physical barriers, Keating is constantly looking forward and cautions her colleagues not to rest on their laurels. “Accessibility services are not a set-it-and-forget-it process,” she says. “It is ever-changing and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. When we are committed to being proactive and responsive to the needs of the guest, there is always more that we can do and always more to plan for the future.”
Indeed, considering that the number of people aged 65 and over in the United States are projected to double in just the first 30 years of this century, there will also be twice as many people 85 and older in 2030 than there were in 2000.
“The arts are an integral part of the human experience, so the idea of saying that some people can access it and other people cannot goes against our DNA at the Arsht Center. We’re going to do anything we can to try to make it as accessible as possible for everybody,” Keating says. “We are all just one moment in time away from being a person with additional needs, so the idea that you don’t necessarily need these services today doesn’t mean that you won’t need them tomorrow. We’re all going to get older. It’s very possible that you may one day have difficulty hearing, macular degeneration or something else that causes your sight to deteriorate. It’s just a matter of time before any single one of us could need additional services so that we can continue to enjoy entertainment programming.”
While many organizations are working hard to attract younger audiences, it is equally important to retain your existing guests ― your most faithful and philanthropic of audiences ― for as long as possible. By creating a commitment to accessibility and a culture where everyone feels welcome, your organization can ensure that more of its valued patrons keep coming back for many years to come.
“We’re able to break down additional obstacles for people to attend. Long-term subscribers may say, ‘Oh, I don’t think I am going to be able to come anymore because my husband’s hearing is deteriorating.’ We would tell them about our open caption performances, which may be a new world for them. We can add people to an additional email distribution list and let them know when our audio-described, ASL interpreted and open caption performances are taking place. We also let them know if they want to come on a different day that we don’t already have set up, it might take us some additional time but we will work to try to make that available,” explains Keating.
Embracing the future
Keating’s focus on accessibility changed dramatically when she attended her first Leadership Exchange in the Arts and Disability (LEAD) conference in 2009. LEAD focuses on accessible needs within the arts community and is fostered by the Kennedy Center. It is an international organization and conference that she recommends to industry professionals who can take part.
By working together, Keating says, organizations can learn from one another and continue to delight audiences. She points to her own experience with the Florida Access Coalition for the Arts (FLACA), a group that includes the Arsht Center, Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, Miami City Ballet and Miami Theater Center.
These five organizations, all within an hour’s drive of each other, came together after a casual conversation at the LEAD conference in 2010. On top of similar locations, audiences and shows, the groups share many common services, including:
- Assistive listening devices that amplify sounds of the show;
- American Sign Language for people who are deaf or hard of hearing;
- Open captioning so guests can read dialogue;
- Touch tours that provide a sensory experience for people who are blind or have low vision to feel specific elements from the show to help them visualize what is happening on stage;
- Swing-arm seating for easy transfer from mobility devices to theater seats; and,
- Wheelchair-accessible seating for guests who do not transfer to theater seats.
“FLACA meets quarterly with a mission to promote, provide and facilitate equal access to every individual wanting to experience the arts,” explains Keating. “We’ve created an open door for feedback, so any arts or accessibility organization in south Florida can take part in the conversation. Because of this shared knowledge base and hearing each other’s stories, we’ve seen a shift in how we approach accessibility. FLACA helps us stay informed about what the expectations of our guests might be.”
There are many benefits to the group’s open style of communication and willingness to share information. “For example, open captioning was provided for years for Broadway shows, but other artists felt it may distract other guests,” Keating explains. “Our experience [at the Arsht Center] is that it is helpful to all guests, even those without hearing loss. We began putting a clause in our contracts for the provision of accessible services as deemed necessary by the venue. By sharing this information, this provision is now in all of our contracts. We’ve had an easier time expanding open captioning when the need arises.” The organizations also share resources when it comes to ASL interpreters and help each other train volunteers, including audio describers. These specially trained volunteers provide a description of the setting and action happening on the stage so that guests who are blind or have low vision can visualize what is happening on the stage. This is broadcast on a separate channel on assistive listening devices. The Arsht Center went on to win an award from American Council of the Blind for outstanding contributions to the establishment and continued development of audio description programs.
Keating encourages entertainment organizations around the world to form local and regional networks of their own, to reach out to others for help and not to be afraid to embrace innovative ideas and approaches to meet the needs of their audiences. “As professionals in the arts, I believe that at our roots we are truly creative people. And because of this gift of creativity, we should be able to see the possibilities in any challenge. I encourage all of you to push the status quo and provide more ways to provide equal access to more guests more often,” she says.
The Arsht Center commitment
When the ADA added regulations making it mandatory to expand access to wheelchair seats across all sales channels, Keating and her team quickly made sure that guests could access wheelchair spaces, swing-arm seats and companion seats online. The Arsht Center website also includes messaging on American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation, open captioning, audio description, touch tours and infrared assistive listening devices so that every guest can have an equal and accommodating online purchase experience. This information is included in the organization’s accessibility page.
Also on its accessibility page, the Arsht Center includes information on welcoming service animals to its venue:
- Service animals as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act are permitted into the theaters and must remain on a leash or in a harness at all times.
- A service animal must sit under the guest’s seat or at their feet.
- Service animals are not permitted to sit in the aisle or on seats.
- A guest whose service animal poses a threat to the safety of other Adrienne Arsht Center guests and/or staff may be asked to escort the animal off the premises.
“They usually sit at the feet of the ticketed guest and all is well with the world,” explains Keating, adding that some areas of the house such as box seats provide more room for larger breeds.
The Arsht Center is also committed to providing equal access to the stage. This is another new regulation, though it is discussed far less frequently. Keating recalls how this was addressed in a recent production.
“One of our recent productions was a bar on stage where audience members could buy a drink and mingle with the cast before the show and at intermission. This element was essential to the feel of the production, but the original suggestion for guests who use mobility devices was to have them travel out the side doors and around the back to enter the bar from the side stage,” explains Keating. “We knew this wasn’t good enough for our expected level for customer service, so we added a lift to the stage to provide the most similar experience possible for all of our guests.”
This commitment to accessibility was noticed by the Miami Herald, which wrote: “At the Arsht, theatergoers who use wheelchairs can join in that fun, thanks to a special lift.”
With a commitment to accessibility, your organization can create an environment that is warm and welcoming for everyone. Focus on the abilities of your guests and look to create equal access to all facets of the entertainment experience.
INTIX thanks Nicole Keating, assistant vice president of business intelligence at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, for sharing her experiences at our 2017 conference. Members with questions can reach Nicole directly at +1 (786) 468-2330 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Tags: ADA , Accessibility