Leadership / 12.08.21
INTIX 2022: In Defense of Cultural Rights
Editor’s Note: With this story, we are delighted to feature renowned accessibility authority Betty Siegel, J.D., and preview her important closing keynote at INTIX 2022, which will be an expansion of our earlier story on creating a welcoming environment, especially in this post-pandemic world. The INTIX 2022 conference program is online and updated in real time as new details are finalized. Register for INTIX 2022 today!
As Director of the Office of Accessibility and VSA at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Betty Siegel is on the front-lines of change — rethinking, reenvisioning and reengaging with the disability community. That community is growing, year after year. Currently, says Siegel, 15% of the world population has a disability (approximately 1 billion people), and at least one in four Americans has a disability. That is more than 50 million people. The international number is also likely higher than reported, says Siegel, because reporting on what constitutes a disability varies widely from country to country.
“We know that many people will experience disability in their personal lives,” says Siegel, “either by acquiring a disability as they age or having a child, a parent, a spouse or a sibling with a disability. It is really important [for the numbers to sink in] because disability is the normal condition of humankind, and we tend to treat it as though it is the abnormal condition.”
“What we are really talking about is the right to access culture.” —Betty Siegel
Given such an overwhelming statistic, it goes without saying that still more effort must go into ensuring everyone has equal opportunity to participate in society, including all forms of live entertainment. Siegel puts it even more bluntly.
“What we are really talking about is the right to access culture, and culture involves large entertainment venues and entertainers, sports, festival, fairs, carnivals, and so much more,” Siegel says. “We are in a moment right now in society where issues of civil rights, human rights, cultural rights, social justice and disability justice are at the forefront in our minds. We, as the cultural community, ought to do better than we are doing right now at engaging with those issues. And we can.”
One way that we can engage with these issues, according to Siegel, is to go beyond what is required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which introduced bigger principles through federal regulations.
“Members of INTIX are really good at implementing these regulations,” she says. “But the black-and-white, dos-and-don’ts of the law are just a starting point. The legislation lays out a basic structure and the foundation of access, but it is not necessarily the perfect form of accessibility. The law is the foundation or the floor. It is not the ceiling. It is important to understand more fully the underlying intent and meaning [of the law], we will do our jobs better by making more informed decisions and choices in how we conduct our business.”
As much as this is a civil rights and social justice issue, for ticketing professionals, Siegel acknowledges that it is also very much a business issue.
“These are our ticket buyers.” —Betty Siegel
“If we get down to nuts and bolts, these are our ticket buyers. We are in the business of selling tickets, engaging people in our performances, activities and events. Every person of those 25% of the population who we are targeting as potential future ticket buyers, they do not just buy one ticket. I recall a survey that INTIX did [showing that] an average ticket-buying party is 2.5 people, so when you sell one ticket to a person with a disability, you are really engaging 2.5 human beings on average. [With some 50 million people with disabilities in America alone,] it can be significant income that we are leaving on the table. We see that repeated in a recent survey around people who are blind accessing our websites. We see the huge number of people who are blind or have low vision abandon their efforts to use retail operation websites partway through the transaction because the transaction is not accessible to them. That is leaving a huge amount of money on the table. Huge. We cannot afford that right now.”
Siegel reiterates, “One of the hard-core benefits of being accessible and inclusive is simply more ticket sales. As I said earlier, people with disabilities do not just buy one ticket. They buy 2.5 tickets like every other average ticket-buying person. That is an income generator in a time when we are all struggling with the economic realities that we should not be ignoring. There are also studies that have shown that people with disabilities are incredibly loyal once they have a good experience with an entity, be it a retail operation or a theater. They stick with us; they stick by us, and we need that brand loyalty.”
Also expected in her INTIX 2022 keynote, Siegel notes that while the number of lawsuits filed during COVID-19 went down slightly, the numbers are once again rising rapidly, especially from those who feel their rights are being denied when it comes to website and digital accessibility.
“That is a scary fact,” she says. “Addressing our websites and making them accessible and compliant with federal disability rights law is not hard. It just needs to be intentional. We have to pay attention to it.”
Siegal says she is heartened that INTIX members care so deeply about ensuring no one is left out of the opportunity to participate in live entertainment, and she notices a trend to address accessibility as a part of institutional diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion efforts.
“I would really make a point of that,” she says. “If you are doing DEI work and you are leaving out accessibility, then you are leaving out a significant and really important population that has been marginalized and traditionally sidelined. That is a critical issue that we’ve got to push for.”
“Access is everybody’s job.” —Betty Siegel
One very important point Siegel stresses is that improving accessibility is not just the responsibility of an organization, venue or team. Rather, we are all allies in the effort to be accessible and inclusive.
“Sometimes, as individuals, we may feel helpless and hopeless in dealing with these issues. We feel like our concerns, expertise and knowledge are not always brought forward in the broader field of culture and entertainment. I think that one of the things we must do is grab back a certain amount of power and authority that resides in us, in the work that we do, because we can influence and implement our work in a way that creates genuine and authentic inclusion and access for more people. I really do believe that access is everybody’s job. We are the ones who put in place the policies and the procedures, and we engage in the practices that create real access and inclusion. We are not just about the pretty words. We are about the doing of the work. I hope people understand just how important their role is.”
To bring home the point that each person can make a difference, Siegel tells the story of a 7-year-old girl who is Deaf and was able to enjoy a performance of Matilda along with her siblings and parents because of the accessible environment created by live entertainment professionals.
“At the Kennedy Center, we have been offering sign language-interpreted performances on a regular basis for more than 20 years,” she says. “We do not really even think about it much. We just do it. People come and have a lovely time. One day, we got an email after the fact from a father who said he did not know we offered this service. He had really wanted to do something fun with his kids, so he bought five or six tickets to see Matilda. His daughter, who was about 7 years old, was Deaf and he bought her a ticket thinking, ‘Well, we will just go, and she'll get what she gets out of it.’ Most children who are Deaf are born into hearing families. This was a family event, so this child who is Deaf came along with her family to see the show. To the father’s surprise and delight, the show was one of our interpreted shows. He had bought tickets pretty far up in the balcony, so he went down at intermission and talked to one of the ushers, who talked to one of the theater managers, and they were able to move his family down front to where the interpreters were for the second half of the show. He said it was really an amazing experience because typically the experience for his daughter who is Deaf is never the same as it is for everybody else. This experience of coming to the Kennedy Center, that the interpreters were just there, enabled that child to have the kind of experience that a family wants to give to all their children. She enjoyed that show more than anything else they had done all year. We got this really lovely letter thanking us for the work that we’ve done, telling us the story of how much it meant to the family.”
Siegel continues, “We don’t do it for the profuse thanks and the gratitude. We do it because it is the right thing to do, and we would do this for any of our patrons. But it is, I have to admit, really nice to have someone thank you for the work that you just do every day. The only downside to that story is that afterwards, I wondered, how could the father not have known that we do this on a regular basis? How did we fail to get the news out to him? He had accidentally happened upon it, but the truth is that he did, it made the family’s experience so much better, and now he knows. I have never checked, but I hope that he has continued to be a patron at the Kennedy Center.”
When Betty Siegel takes to the stage as the closing keynote speaker at the 43rd annual INTIX Conference and Exhibition, she will have other stories and, no doubt, plenty of direct and practical advice so attendees can learn more about embracing their power to affect change in critical ways, thereby ensuring that no one is left out of participating in live events. These tangible examples and stories can also be taken back to each attendee’s administration to fortify their work and the institutional commitment to inclusive practices.
“This is a keynote that is looking to the future,” she says. “It is not trying to look behind. It is the future of the way in which we can rebuild our audiences and really connect with part of our audience that we probably haven’t connected with this well in the past. This is a moment where there is an opportunity for us to really, really, really reach out.”
Register for INTIX 2022 today to secure your spot to hear Betty Siegel and dozens of other dynamic speakers on a variety of topics, including accessibility, which is one of the cornerstones of the INTIX diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility goals arising from the INTIX strategic long-range plan
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Tags: Accessibility , Leadership