Leadership / 06.30.21
A Ticketing Insider’s Perspective on Accessibility: ‘I Only Want People to Cry Happy Tears When They Are Buying Tickets’
Leading image: A smiling Chinese woman (Sarah) with shoulder length black hair and brown eyes. She is wearing a green blouse and a black skirt. She stands against a railing inside a theatre. Her right hand grips the railing and the handle of a cane is seen on the railing. Visible behind her is a red velvet curtain and hanging stage lights.
Editor’s Note: This is part two of a new, 10-part INTIX content series to raise awareness and drive education for a variety of accessibility equity issues in ticketing and live events.
My name is Sarah J. Hom, and I am Director of Audience Services for Roundabout Theatre Company in New York. I have worked in the performing arts for my entire career, starting in the ticket office at The Denver Center for the Performing Arts when I was just 17 years old.
I grew up as a Chinese American in Colorado, and there were very few people who looked like me and my family. My younger brother and I grew up in the suburbs and had a pretty traditional experience, but that was juxtaposed with encountering racism from schoolmates and the public. It was just difficult to reconcile the two. Adding to that, I was born with cerebral palsy. I was always sort of isolated and used to living in my own world, albeit independently, because I spent a lot of time in the hospital as a kid. I think that is the other reason why I love theatre so much: It allowed me to connect with people in a way that I had not been able to do before. I was picked on in the hallways of our high school and felt very accepted by my fellow thespians. So, theatre became a refuge.
Accepting my disability and feeling connected with other disabled people was a challenge until I joined Phamaly Theatre Company in Colorado. Phamaly does amazing work. They are a professional company that has been producing musicals and plays casting exclusively with actors with disabilities across the disability spectrum since the early ’80s. When I got involved with them, I realized that there was this world where I could embrace all the parts of who I was. Even as a costume designer and not a performer (I admire people who thrive on stage; I am not one of those people!), I learned so much about disability artistry. I was hooked! I spent the next few years as a volunteer, and I was also on the Board of Directors. I even served as their Board Chair before leaving for New York.
Me and actor Adam Pascal at the DCPA “Rent” tour opening night party.
All of this thought work led me to my current role at Roundabout Theatre Company where my experiences as a disabled person help guide my work to create a welcoming experience for our patrons (both disabled and nondisabled).
Generally the approach to “welcoming people with disabilities into the theater” is viewed as “Well, we follow the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); we are accessible,” and people frequently believe that is enough. But the ADA is just the bare minimum that you are legally obligated to provide. We would not view the customer experience or any experience in the same way for any other segment of the population, so why does this happen when we are welcoming disabled people?
Sorry not sorry; I care about access.
As an industry, we are always looking for ways to be friendlier and more welcoming, but traditionally it has been for people whose needs and wants “fit” into the way we have been thinking for a very long time. Oftentimes, people with disabilities have different wants and needs. In my experience, the industry generally looks at disabilities from a legal standpoint and not a customer service or a human-centered viewpoint. This means we are missing out on so many opportunities to help people feel more welcome in our spaces. It can be little things, like when someone is trying to buy an accessible seat and having to transfer them to a separate department or sending them via a separate pathway on our website. Sure, that is more convenient for us as the ticket sellers, but for the person who is buying that ticket, it becomes a very “othering” experience. I do not want theatre to be that way for people, because for me, the theater is my home. The theater is where I feel most comfortable, and everybody should be able to feel that in our space.
Too frequently, especially when we are talking about accessibility, we look at going to the theater as a special event, and it should not be that either. Theatre should be just a regular part of your life if it is important to you. I get that theatre is not for everybody, but for those for whom it is important, then we should treat them with equal importance.
Just me moderating a talk with Alain Boublil. [Editor’s Note: Boublil created the original lyrics for “Les Misérables” and “Miss Saigon,” among other musicals.]
‘Miss Saigon’ was the first show I ever saw. These two were the Kim and Chris. I was so excited.
Personally, I have had far too many unfortunate experiences, particularly when buying tickets, but also at venues. Let’s start with buying tickets, because that is often where the process starts.
At times, if I had not known the regulations of the ADA inside and out, I would not have been able to purchase a ticket. Again, remember that the ADA is the bare minimum you can do. If that is my experience, then what does the experience look and feel like for someone who does not know that information?
In 2015, a musical that had great significance to me announced it was closing. Before I lived in New York City, I had always lamented when a show I liked announced its closing date, usually because I was unable to make it to see the show again. I was excited this time because I found out before it was publicly announced, and I was able to walk to the theater on my lunch to go buy a ticket for the closing weekend. This particular theater is even more inaccessible than most Broadway theaters, so I knew I would need an accessible seat. They had one pair left, and I asked to purchase one of the tickets. I was told I could not. When I questioned this, I was told that they could not sell accessible seats as a single. I asked if they sold other seats in the house as single seats. They said, “Of course!” I reminded them that what they were telling me was against all of the ticketing guidelines in the ADA. What was the response I received? That maybe “they” (implying some other entity, likely the theater owner or producer) did not want “handicapped” people to go to the theater by themselves because it was too much of a liability in an emergency. I begged them to stop talking and just sell me the ticket because every time they opened their mouths they said another thing that was in blatant violation of the ADA. Sadly, this did not dissuade them. After arguing at the window for 30 minutes, they grudgingly sold me a single ticket with the admonishment that they were surely going to “get in trouble with the house manager or “someone.” I informed them to send the house manager to my seat, and I would be happy to have a highlighted copy of the ADA with me to share with them.
I wish this was a singular experience, but it has not been. It is one that stands out because I was there in person, and I was having to argue face to face with the person about my right to be somewhere that they would not have questioned for anybody else. Having to defend myself time and time again, having to remind people of what they are legally obligated to provide me is so dehumanizing. It is so disheartening and would be so easy to eliminate by having stronger training, policies and practices, accountability, and better public-facing information for our customers. There are so many things that we can do to prevent these sorts of situations and we don’t. Instead, we fall back into what we have always done or what we think is right (but is not actually right) because no one has talked to a person with a disability.
I have had that same fight time and time again over the phone and via chat. I have had to have that fight so many times I have lost count.
Sometimes Broadway comes to you — my friend Suzanne and me sharing a moment with actor and singer Jonathan Groff.
I see over 100 shows a year when there are shows to be seen. I am not usually getting these through any special favors. I am buying tickets just like any other person, but I am doing it with this base of specialized knowledge. It should not require this much expertise just to buy a ticket. What are we asking of any other customer? What day, what time, how many tickets, what’s your budget? Why should my experience be any different?
My friend Elissa and me during the 45-minute pause that happened at our performance of “King Kong.”
Why do we make it so hard for people who want to spend money with us? That is what makes me the angriest. If a person has made the choice that they want to go to the theater or any event, that they want to give you their money, why do we make it hard for them to buy a ticket? Why do we make it hard for them to get inside a theater or venue? Why do we make it impossible for them to go to the bathroom? Why do we, at so many points along the customer journey, give them these tiny little paper cuts and then rub salt in the wound?
Then you get to the theater itself. In New York, we have very old buildings, and they are not always the most accessible. I think sometimes that is just used as an excuse to avoid finding ways to make them accessible. There are theaters where a person who needs an accessible restroom cannot use the restroom because it does not exist on-site. Or they can’t use it because it does not meet their needs; either there is not enough room to turn if you are using a wheelchair or it is in an odd place that people are never able to find, and that is not acceptable. Why do we think this is an OK experience?
As I mentioned, in a typical year I see over 100 shows. When I go by myself, there is no one for the staff to talk to but me, so they do. When I go to the theater with friends, it is a very different experience; the automatic assumption is that the person with me is not a companion but my caretaker. I have frequently stood there as theater personnel have asked one of my friends if I need to use the restroom. God bless all my friends; they are fantastic. They always turn to me and then look back at them [the staff] and say, “I don't know, why don't you ask her?”
My friend Jonathan and I at the autism-friendly performance of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” on Broadway.
I guess what it comes down to is that there is this denial of our humanity, denial of our intelligence and denial of our existence. All those tiny little interactions add up to say to us that we should not be there. That is why it is so important for me to use whatever voice I have to advocate and to make policies to try to counteract these situations. Fortunately, I have great colleagues who are open to those conversations, to listen, to learn, to help me and to be allies. But that should not be my labor; that should not be my responsibility. I am happy to take on that responsibility because that is who I am as a person, but it should not be incumbent upon a single person or a single group of people to make sure that we are welcome in spaces where we legally have the right to be.
My friend Jared and me at the Colorado Symphony.
At Roundabout Theatre Company, we engage in a lot of training to make sure that all of our front-facing staff is using the right language and interacting in an appropriate way so that we are treating all of our customers the same. A lot of that boils down to making sure that we are not infantilizing people with disabilities as they come through our doors, which is another frequent occurrence. A lot of this was part of our organization’s identity even before I showed up, which is great and also part of what attracted me to Roundabout in the first place. As far as being welcoming, it is really just that; we want to be friendly and welcome people to the spaces that we are in. This often comes down not just to policies that can help create that environment; it is also attitudes and how people are treated. We treat people like they are people, whether they have a disability or not.
People with disabilities make up approximately 20% of the population. We cannot afford to continue to ignore that many people, especially in a time when the industry has been shut down for more than a year. We are going to be competing for attention and, let’s face it, money. Why would we be so silly as to ignore a huge segment of the population because we have not thought about them? These are some of the easiest things to do; I am thinking about access planning, access policy, access equity, access inclusion and anti-ableism. Much of our industry, especially large institutions, is taking a hard look at how we have historically centered around white, able-bodied people and left out other perspectives. As the industry has been engaging in equity, diversity and inclusion work, oftentimes disability is left out of the conversation. We can’t keep doing this, because people with disabilities are there. They have talent, they have skills, they have money, they have a desire to be involved and to have those same opportunities, and they have every right to those opportunities. So, if we are going to talk about human rights, justice, equity and inclusion, then we cannot leave disability out of the conversation.
My friend Eric and me at the opera in Prague.
Venues and entertainment organizations can improve the experience for people with disabilities. How? First and foremost, include people with disabilities on your staff, and include people with disabilities in your planning. If you have an advisory council, a community council, focus groups, whatever you are doing that is soliciting customer feedback, make sure you include people with disabilities. If you are doing access planning and working on policies that impact people with disabilities, then get their input on that too and compensate them for their time. I can’t say that enough: Compensate them for their time. It is about remembering to invite us in as you are making these decisions, and it is about remembering to include us in your hiring practices. People with disabilities are everywhere in the population — on all levels, all races, everywhere — so include them everywhere.
Back to tickets. Price can be a big barrier for people with disabilities, as it is for anyone. The difference is that there are very few accessible seats available at a specific price point that might work for your budget. We are talking about two, maybe four seats out of 1,000 in a theater. As well, accessible seats should not be relegated to the back and sides. We should incorporate accessible seating throughout the house. Disabled people should have the same options. Give people the same opportunities that anybody else has to see your show.
The perks of accessible seating at Red Rocks: Yo Yo Ma up close.
Eric and me backstage at Red Rocks.
I personally find that I have to plan in advance, which, again, is not necessarily something that should be the burden of a person with a disability. Most importantly, I find that information is usually lacking. I can find out where to park, where the nearby restaurants are, but sometimes I cannot easily find out if there is an accessible restroom. Another thing is that sometimes I can do stairs, but sometimes I have bad days and I cannot do stairs. That is not always predictable for me, and so I usually err on the side of caution by buying accessible seats when I know that I will be able to get to them. Sometimes if I am having a good day and I am just trying to buy a seat at the last minute, there is just not enough information to allow me to make an informed choice about the money I am spending. For example:
How far is it from the front door into the area where my seat would be?
How many stairs am I going to have to take to get to those seats?
How steep are those stairs?
I know we ultimately get into a lot of minutiae, but if we could find better ways of conveying that information, it does not just help people with disabilities; it helps all of our customers. People are looking for that kind of information because they want those kinds of choices when they are making a decision.
Honestly, I would like for people with disabilities not to have to think so much and plan so hard when going to live events. Accessibility equals choice, and people with disabilities want the same choices as every other buyer. If you think about a typical eventgoing experience, there is always the question for the average ticket buyer about whether there are going to be seats available. No amount of protection is going to ensure that you can get tickets for “Hamilton” the day before the performance you want to see. I am not saying that is what needs to happen, but I should not have to think about how I am going to ask a ticketing professional for a seat location and whether or not that representative has had the right training to take in what I am saying and be able to translate that to seating. If I am a wheelchair user, I should not have to think about whether or not I can reach the will-call window when I go to pick up my tickets. Or whether or not I am going to be able to find my way around the venue because no one has thought about wayfinding if you are blind or have low vision. I should not have to think so hard about going to see live entertainment. I should not have to question whether or not there is going to be a bathroom. I should be able just to go and know that there is going to be a bathroom. That is pretty basic functionality, and we do not even provide that.
When it comes to seating, we should stop thinking about accessible seats as wheelchair seats. They can have seats that are accessible to wheelchairs or they can just be accessible seats that serve a lot of different people who have accessibility needs. Collectively we should stop accepting things as they are. We all fall back into thinking “Well, that is just what the ticketing system does; that is the only way the ticketing system works.” If we envision functionality that can make things better, such as making it possible for people who use screen readers to buy a ticket in the same way that a sighted person would, then we would all be collectively advocating for change. It feels like I receive an update to my iPhone every three days because there are minor tweaks needed for the operating system. We should be doing the same thing and making the same investment in our ticketing technologies.
To help create equitable experiences, we should eliminate the practice of what I like to call “accessibility day at the theater.” That is the scheduling of the one performance during a run where there are all the access services jammed into one day. It is all your accessibility needs all in one day and just that one day, and that’s it. Rather than just a day, we should look for ways that we can be more inclusive in all our performances, whether that is by embracing technology or through other mechanisms. I know a lot of people will say, “Well, that is really education’s job” or “That is really marketing’s job,” but as ticketing professionals, we should all be advocating for those things. We should stop the separate sales paths that we make our fans take to sell accessible seats. I know we frequently do that because we are trying to circumvent brokers from buying up accessible inventory at low prices and then reselling those seats. I get that we are trying to protect the inventory, trying to protect the people, and I do not have the answer, but I know that if we came together collectively and thought outside of “here is what the regulations are; here is what our ticketing systems do,” we could find a better way to have a more inclusive experience from the moment you buy your tickets through the entire experience at the theater.
At Studio 54 for a relaxed performance.
We all need to adopt more inclusive language. There are a lot of us, myself included, that have been in the industry for a long time. Language has evolved, particularly around accessible seating and disability in general. Words matter, and I would love to see us all getting behind using more modern language and just erasing all the old, outdated terms out of our brains.
For our colleagues in marketing and other content-producing departments, please remember accessibility when you are marketing a show. As we all know, the customer journey does not start when you go to buy tickets. The journey actually starts when someone decides to put on a show and then you start getting marketing materials together. Have captioned videos and alt text on images or even more visible image descriptions. Make sure that advertisements are screen-reader friendly. Those sorts of things are not exactly in my world, but they are related. As ticketing professionals, we need to be advocating for those things as well. It is really about meeting people wherever their needs are, which we already do in so many other ways. So, I ask, why do we so often forget about accessibility needs when we are doing this?
Ultimately, I only want people to cry happy tears when they are buying tickets. I want everyone who wants to find a home at the theater to find one and not have to fight for it.
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Tags: ADA , Accessibility , Theater , Leadership