Leadership / 09.15.21
Creating a Welcoming Environment for Customers With Disabilities in COVID-19 Times and Beyond
We are so fortunate to have incredible experts in our INTIX community, especially when it comes to areas such as accessibility equity. Among those experts is Betty Siegel, who is Director of the Office of Accessibility and VSA at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Betty has spent several decades working to solve complex issues in access, disability, equity, inclusion and more. With her specialized and in-depth knowledge of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), training and COVID-19 response, she is the ideal person to advise our community regarding the overarching impacts of the pandemic on customers with disabilities and the return to live events.
“As the venues are reopening, the focus right now is on how we ensure the health and safety of all of our patrons while also accommodating visitors and guests with disabilities,” Siegel says. “How do we accommodate people, for example, for whom mask wearing may be prohibitive or life threatening? What do we need to do in terms of our policies, our procedures and protocols to ensure that we are not excluding or discriminating against people with disabilities?”
She continues, “The thing that every venue has to remember and that everyone has to know, especially in the United States where we have such powerful civil rights legislation that covers people with disabilities, is that people’s civil rights and human rights do not get thrown out the window just because there is a pandemic. Those are still the law. From the venue perspective, you always have to keep the laws of your country, your city, your county, and your local or your regional legislation in mind. You also have to be concerned about international law, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the cultural rights that are embedded in almost every piece of human rights legislation that has ever been passed. These are real and we cannot just say, ‘Oh, we will think about those later.’”
That the laws “did not just vanish in a puff of smoke or get put on hold” is the first point Siegel raised when we asked what ticketing and live events professionals must do to ensure they are being inclusive and welcoming for people with disabilities in these times. “The legislation, the obligations — that all is real and still needs to be considered,” she says.
It is also important to make sure your messaging is clear. Ticketing professionals are often the first point of contact and the primary source of information for people who want to attend an event. Their obligation, says Siegel, is to give clear, specific information so that a person with a disability ultimately gets to choose whether or not they are going to attend.
“Provide enough information so that they can make an informed decision,” she says. “For example, if your venue has a ‘you must wear a mask, no exceptions’ rule in place, then someone with a disability needs to know that. If they cannot wear a mask, they will know that it is not a venue they want to go to at this time.”
She continues, “What I am seeing is that there is still a huge amount of risk involved with leaving your home for someone with a compromised immune system or with certain types of disabling conditions, much less going to a large public place where you have a lot of people convening. Going to the theater, I think, is not something that people with some types of disabilities are going to choose to do lightly.”
While a strict masking rule may sound discriminatory and there is certainly a lot of debate surrounding the issue, it is important to be aware of the direct threat clause in the ADA.
“If something is a direct threat to the individual with a disability or other people around them, then you do not have to do that, whatever it is,” Siegel says.
An example she offers to help illustrate the point is the height restriction on certain rides at an amusement park or a fair.
“It would be unsafe for someone who is not that tall to ride the ride. Is that discriminatory? Well, if I am a little person and I am not tall enough, I could argue that it is discriminatory to have that absolute ‘you must be this tall to ride this ride’ rule. The other side will argue that it is a health, life and safety issue — that if you are not at least a certain height, then you will fall out of the ride. This is a hypothetical example, but there is something about the ride that makes it unsafe for people under a certain height, and so that is not discrimination because it is not because you have a disability. It is a neutral requirement, and you are allowed to have those as long as there is no discriminatory effect or impact, and as long as you can back it up, that it really is unsafe.”
She continues, “If we know through science that breathing is what spreads COVID-19, then it would be unsafe for somebody to be without a mask, so you can make the argument that it is unsafe if you put a lot of people into an enclosed space for three hours at a time without having everybody wearing a mask. You can also argue whether that is really true; do we really know that? It is a challenge, especially for venues, because things are constantly changing. What we know today is different than what we knew yesterday, but we are having to put protocols and procedures in place to create safe, welcoming and nondiscriminatory environments all at the same time, and that can be a real challenge.”
With all this in mind, Siegel has four important recommendations for ticketing and live events professionals to create welcoming environments for customers with disabilities, both during the pandemic and beyond.
- Do not make things up. If you are going to take a stand or have a policy, protocol or procedure in place, it is important to do your homework and document your findings. Siegel warns against implementing things that other venues are doing without doing that upfront work. You cannot simply look to other organizations and say, “I think I will do it that way too,” or “I think this will work. I think this is safe.”
“Do your homework,” Siegel says. “Check with reputable federal or governmental entities. For example, The Kennedy Center follows CDC guidance, and although the CDC guidance [on masks] can change, we follow this guidance.”
- Never say no. This philosophy stems from human resources, Siegel says. When it comes to employment and people with disabilities, there is a requirement that you engage in an interactive process. In doing so, you determine the needs of an individual instead of automatically saying “no.” Siegel has taken that idea and applied it to her organization’s obligations under the ADA.
“Instead of saying no, what you should say is, ‘What exactly do you need to participate, let’s talk about that.’ In COVID-19 times, you might get somebody who says, ‘Well, I want to come, and I am not going to wear a mask.’ Instead of explaining that the rules say you must wear a mask, it is better to say, ‘What is it exactly that you need to be comfortable here? Is it really about the mask, or is it about how long you have to wear the mask? If you only have to wear the mask for an hour, would that work for you, because the first act is 45 minutes, and then we have a 15-minute intermission, at which point you could go outside and take your mask off for 15 minutes. Then you can come back in, and the second act is 50 minutes.’”
This links back to giving good information. What Siegel is saying to that person is they need to wear the mask in the building for 45 minutes, does that work? In other words, she is providing information, and now it is up to the customer to make their decision. When it comes to disabilities, focus on what an individual needs to be able to participate. The Kennedy Center does exactly this by looking at each situation on a case-by-case basis.
“I’ll give you an example of something that happened,” Siegel says. “We had a family reach out to us. They wanted to buy four tickets and drive from Pennsylvania to see one of the really big Broadway shows. One of the members of the party was a young man with pretty severe cerebral palsy. It was not enough to have an accessible bathroom. They needed a place where they could actually set up a changing table for an adult, not a child. The ride would be four hours, and there were lots of complications with this individual’s ability to travel for that long, be seated in a show and then have to travel home again. We could have just said, ‘No, we don’t do that,’ or ‘We don’t have an adult changing room.’ We could have just said no, but we did not. What we said instead was, tell us a little bit more about exactly what it is that you need. How much space do you need? Do you need a space that has running water in it? How close do you need to be to a restroom? Do you need an accessible restroom, or will any restroom do? We started talking to them and trying to focus on what they needed as a family. After talking to them, we narrowed down their needs. We knew what day they were coming. We sold them the tickets in a wheelchair accessible location, then a person on my team met them at the door and escorted them to the private space we had arranged for them to use before and after the show. They had everything that they needed, and that family got to see the show, and we sold four tickets.”
Siegel continues, “We are required to modify our policies, procedures and practices, and we are required to accommodate people to remove barriers where possible and not discriminate. We are also motivated by the fact that we sold four tickets. How much did that cost me? Next to nothing. It was staff time. I did not offer or volunteer to bring or give them a changing table. They brought a changing table with them, but we offered to find the space.”
- Train your staff. The cost of training is low, and it offers a high return on investment. At The Kennedy Center, staff are trained annually. It started with everyone who was selling a ticket and includes anything that has changed in procedures, policies or practices, accessibility features of the different theaters, etiquette including the organization’s “never say no” culture, and more.
“I have so much confidence in our sales services staff because they really embrace this training. They actually look forward to it because we have created a Jeopardy game for them to play. We try to make it fun because that is how people learn and remember,” Siegel says, adding that everyone on the sales services team knows to send anything out of the ordinary to the access office. “We drill our policies and procedures home in training, and 99.9% of the time we work something out through our office. We figure out what the person needs, and we are able to accommodate them. It is not always the accommodation they ask for, but we work things out. We also give people choice.”
Organizations of all sizes and types can access valuable learning opportunities through The Kennedy Center’s Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) network and annual conference.
“The Kennedy Center’s LEAD conference has become the go-to conference for people who care about these issues, and we come together once a year. It is joyous, welcoming and embracing; we learn from each other, and we meet people. At the beginning of every conference, I tell everyone they are going to be the experts [in their organizations] on these issues when they walk out. If you do not know something, you are going to know who to call.”
She continues, “[There is] cross-pollination between museums and theaters, theaters and zoos. Culture to me is defined really broadly. The people that attend LEAD started off as theaters, then we opened it up to museums and parks. Then we started getting aquariums, some zoos and then we had libraries. If you are a place of public accommodation under the ADA and you are doing open public programming, then you probably come to LEAD and learn a lot — and you’re learning it from your peers in the field.”
Individual annual membership to the LEAD network is priced at $30, and members can access a very active Listserv that connects the community and enables peer-to-peer learning.
“I am really proud of the LEAD network and the LEAD conference,” Siegel says, adding that The Kennedy Center also offers training for outside organizations as do other LEAD members.
- Adapt your policies and procedures to current needs and current times. “The COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us all that we have to be flexible, and this is a place where people can sometimes be a little bit rigid,” Siegel says. “It is inherent in the field of ticketing that you want to have procedures. Those procedures are good because they protect you in a lot of different ways, and they give surety to your renters and to the producers and presenters. Those procedures are really important, and you want consistency. Consistency is also an incredibly important thing in the disability community, so you want to go back now and with this new lens of COVID-19, however your institution is managing that or handling that or responding to it, you want to make sure that your policies, procedures and practices have kept up.”
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Tags: Accessibility , Theater , Venues , Leadership , COVID-19 , Coronavirus