Leadership / 12.15.21
Live Event Inclusivity and the ‘Intentional Invitation’
In the late 1990s, almost 10 years after Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the University of Texas at Austin agreed to renovate one of its buildings. Among the changes, it replaced a standard door with one that opened and closed automatically. The idea was to improve access for those who may have a mobility limitation. But the person who was most excited about the new door was not someone who used a wheelchair, scooter or cane — indeed, he had no obvious physical disability of any kind. It was the man who delivered cases of Dr. Pepper to the building on a hand cart twice a week. Every time he made a delivery, he would make a point of smiling and saying out loud, “Lovin’ this door!” The new door was also really helpful for a faculty member with a new baby (and stroller) and anyone with their arms full who needed to access the building.
Diane Nutting, a nationally known accessibility and inclusion consultant, is proud to share this story because she was responsible for convincing the university to make renovations to a campus building as part of her thesis project. The lesson has served her well along a lifetime career path of creating welcoming spaces and environments.
“When you are creating an accessible and inclusive environment, you are creating an environment that is better for everyone,” she says. “It is not just about making it better for one or two people. If you are thinking about this from the very beginning and designing correctly, you are actually creating a space and an experience that welcomes everyone.”
Core Values and Vision
The concept of “intentional invitation,” as Nutting sees it, is to “not assume that everyone feels welcome in your space — even if you mean them to be.” She explains that this means you are intentionally extending a welcome, adding that we need to be thinking about perceptions as much as producers think about the realities of programming. “It means thinking carefully about the ‘barriers’ to your organization — be they real, perceived or imagined,” she says.
A large part of the work to extend intentional invitation involves communication. Organizations must, she says, communicate that there has been a consideration of diversity when crafting and designing a space and an experience, and, of course, this includes the ticketing process.
This can be accomplished in part by including accessibility language in event descriptions on your ticketing platform (e.g., “This event will feature X, Y and Z,” which may be American Sign Language interpretation, audio description, captioning, relaxed performance days, etc.); having lobby and venue signage that explains when a service is available, and including that same information in a brochure or event program; ensuring accessibility icons are included in every advertisement and piece of marketing material that your organization, venue or team creates; and even including a line about accessibility in your press releases. By extending inclusive thinking to everything you do, customers will not feel like they or your engagement with them has been an afterthought.
“It is about communicating that inclusion is part of your core values and your vision as an organization — that this is what you believe in, and you make sure everyone is aware of that,” says Nutting, who is one of the leading thinkers at the intersection of disability, live events and education.
Based in the Washington, D.C., area, she has collaborated with and presented to dozens of entertainment organizations and higher education institutions, including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Smithsonian Institution, the United States Botanic Garden and Carnegie Mellon University. Her work and projects tend to focus on a holistic shift in thinking toward greater accessibility and inclusion that becomes part of your day-to-day “business as usual.”
“I think that is where a lot of organizations are shifting to now — this idea that, yes, accessibility is at the core of what we do, and it is part of what we do. It is not something off to the side. Accessibility and inclusion needs to be front and center, and you need to be talking about it from the beginning [of every project, plan and production].”
Indeed, Nutting says that “putting this into practice, thinking about how each element of the live event experience (from ticketing to event end) extends welcome and communicates a consideration of diversity.”
A Step Beyond Compliance
Increasingly, organizations and venues are communicating that they are “inclusive” or “accessible” versus saying they are “compliant with the ADA,” the latter of which can sometimes feel off-putting to some people, even though it is not intended to come across that way.
Indeed, the ADA guarantees people with disabilities the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. This could mean anything from ensuring wheelchair ramp access into a building, accessible bathrooms for those who need them, sign language interpretation or captioning for the Deaf community, and lots more in between. But Nutting says focusing on legal requirements or a legal response is not the best way to approach the issue. Instead, let us talk about a human response.
“ADA guidelines are a good starting point, but I always encourage thinking beyond the ADA. Do not use the ADA as your ‘end goal.’ Rather, use the ADA specifications and regulations as a tool for creating an inclusive environment,” Nutting says. “Legally, there are the things you need to do, but then ask yourself, how is that applicable in this practical space? [How welcoming and useful is it] if you go into a restroom and there is an accessible stall, but the turning radius does not allow you to get in or out? Or if you are a wheelchair user and get to the door, but there is not enough room to physically reach the door handle to open it, and someone has to open the door from the outside?”
Nutting continues, “Often the architect and the contractors are checking off boxes, but then there is little consideration of how people will actually engage with the physical and environmental space and the activities happening there, which is why it is so important to have individuals with disabilities involved. This should not be something you do and then deliver on a platter. This should be something that is designed and built with the input of user experts from the disability community and those with lived experience.”
Intentional Invitation Is Good Customer Service
Anyone who has spent time working in ticketing will appreciate the importance of providing good customer service, if for no other reason than it is good for your organization’s business. A happy customer is more likely to be a repeat attendee.
“You are special because you are one of our guests, and every single one of our guests is special.” —Diane Nutting
Nutting says another way of looking at intentional invitation is simply considering it to be good customer service. You move away from the idea of “accommodating” people with different needs and treating them as “special” and focus instead on an inclusive model. “You are special because you are one of our guests,” is how she puts it, “and every single one of our guests is special.”
She continues, “There is a diversity in the way that each person will move, communicate, process and engage. When you design any type of experience — be it the ticket-selling procedures, the actual artistic product or the customer experience of walking through the doors and experiencing the milieu of your space — if from the beginning you are considering that diversity, you are already thinking about creating an inclusive experience. If you are only designing an experience, or a process or a protocol with one lens and one assumption of engagement, then what you are essentially doing is automatically excluding about 25% of the population.”
Think About the Ticketing Process
Another way to show your commitment and create intentional invitation is by thoroughly thinking through how people buy tickets for your organization’s live events.
“How does ticketing for your event happen? Online? By phone? Is it both? What is the logistical process in the ticket selling, and are those protocols and procedures unintentionally excluding someone? Do you have a timeout on your ticketing site? We understand why timeouts are there, but if, for example, a patron is on your website who uses an eye-gaze keyboard, or [someone] needs more time to process or physically type in information, there is a big possibility that they will not finish before the timeout. Plus, those timeouts are stressful for everyone. Is that necessary? If it is necessary, is there a way to offer some sort of different option for those who need it? Are you communicating event accessibility throughout the process so customers do not get to the very end of the registration or purchase to find out that there is no way to know if they can access the event?” says Nutting.
She continues, “For example, do I know from the outset if the space has accessible seating or if there will be captioning before I pay for a ticket? Do I have to do extra work to find that information? We do not often think about the ‘extra work’ many individuals need to put forth in order to figure out if they are included in the environment or the experience. Time is our most precious commodity, so we have to think about that.”
Ultimately, says Nutting, the concept of intentional invitation “moves away from a system that puts an onus on a person who is traditionally marginalized or underserved to initiate relationship and communication (and potentially disclose personal information) in order to carve out a space of welcome for themselves.”
Training Is Essential
Early in her career, Nutting spent a number of years working for theaters, starting as the company manager, interpreter and assistant stage manager for the National Theatre of the Deaf, then later working in the education departments for New Victory Theater in New York City and City Theatre Company in Pittsburgh. She also served for nine years as the Director of Access and Inclusion for Imagination Stage, working to provide accessible and inclusive performing arts experiences for all students, patrons and artists. One thing she learned and now teaches is that beyond thinking through your ticket purchase flow, you need to train your ticketing staff to be able to ask questions, as well as answer them.
“Ticketing staff need to be prepared to engage in a conversation that will answer — and also ask — questions to provide the best level of service,” she says. “During my time at Imagination Stage, we began doing the work of sensory friendly performances. We would sit down with the ticketing team to really think [and talk] through the types of questions they might hear from patrons and how they could offer information and reassurance. ‘These are things that people might say. This is what this word means. These are the questions you can ask to make sure you are providing the best possible seating options.’ And so on. The calls might come in saying, ‘Do you really mean my child? My child will be the worst child there.’ [The response could be something like,] ‘We welcome everyone and, no, your child is not going to be the worst child there, and it is not about worse or better. It is about who your child is, and this is a safe space.’”
Nutting continues, “But this approach is applicable in any ticket purchase conversation. [For example,] ‘Do you have accessible seating?’ can mean many things. Understanding that ‘accessible seating’ in this context can mean many different things, and being able to ask, ‘Are you looking for a theater seat you can transfer into or a space for a wheelchair to fit? Will you have companions with you? Do you require an open space? Do you need to be near an exit? This level of customer service that engages with the customer and asks the right questions will contribute to everyone feeling welcome and included.”
Nutting also stresses the need to train ticketing teams to be prepared for the unexpected. “Thinking about COVID-19 protocols, if someone is wearing a mask behind a glass or plexiglass screen at the ticket office, the possibility that someone is not going to be able to hear, understand and discern what is being said to them is pretty high. So, are there ways that you can think about that and how you can meet that challenge?”
Thinking about a creative solution to this, says Nutting, can be as simple as having a small whiteboard and a dry erase marker so that you are prepared in advance to write information down when needed.
She is quick to point out, however, that it is not only front-line staff who need training to create welcoming environments and intentional invitation.
“Everyone in the organization needs to understand how their work is directly related to the vision and mission of creating that environment,” says Nutting. “If I am in the graphics department, then it is about making sure that there is correct color contrast [in materials], that our website is accessible, that icons are included, that accessibility language is included, and that the images I am picking have a wide range of representation across race, ability and gender. If I am working in the facilities department, it is about making sure that the environment is safe. It is about making sure that my facilities team is not repeatedly putting out movable barriers like trash cans or other stuff that is blocking traffic paths. If I am part of the development team, it is about including an accessibility line item in every single grant that I am writing to make sure it is clear to our funders that this is a vision value for our organization. If I am the artistic director or curator, how am I thinking about our programming and diversity of artist representation? I also think it is very important that the entire organization has an awareness because when you work in an organization, you have a certain level of pride and an expected knowledge base about the work and infrastructures.”
Nutting continues, “And so, you also want that person to be able to speak about the commitment to inclusive welcome so that when they run into their neighbor in the grocery store who says, ‘Wow, I would really love to bring my brother to see your show, but my brother is on the spectrum and has sensory sensitivities’ or ’My mother is not able to transfer out of her wheelchair anymore,’ that person, [even though they are not part of the front-line customer services team], can say, ‘Actually, we are able to support that. Here is the basic information, and here is how to contact someone you can talk to about that.’ [It is critical to make] sure that everyone understands that this is part of our vision and values.”
But it takes more than being aware of front-end practices and what kind of public face an organization is wearing. Nutting says the commitment cannot exist in a vacuum.
“How are we thinking about accessibility and intentional invitation, and how is it woven into the fabric of our whole organization? Are our HR policies reflecting inclusivity? How are we providing a space that is supportive of all of our employees, who have a variety of different needs or may need support? Are we conducting our internal meetings in a way that is inclusive and accessible to everybody? It is important to think about this more deeply in terms of infrastructures, not just ‘this is our commitment to our audience.’”
Connect and Create by Communicating
Through all of this, Nutting emphasizes time and again that messaging is extremely important. She says an organization must actively extend an invitation and communicate its vision values to everyone, “otherwise, the assumption can be that you are not really wanting folks to attend, that it is too much of a hassle, that you have not made the consideration or you are already thinking in a limited way about who your audience is.”
An example Nutting used in workshops for many years was of two newspaper ads for different museums.
“Imagine that you want to go see an art exhibit, so you open the arts and culture section of the newspaper and see two museum ads. One of the museums has included text, iconography or something else that communicates they are an accessible and inclusive environment. In the other museum ad, there is no mention of anything. There is no iconography, no comment about accessibility, no contact number, nothing. If I am a person who benefits from an accessible space or is in need of a service in order to engage in the experience that is being created, one museum has already told me that I am welcome in their space. I am using a museum here [as an example], but you can obviously [extend this to any type of live event organization], and obviously think beyond newspapers to websites, social media posts and other digital marketing strategies”
Nutting adds, “I really don’t think that [live event] organizations are intentionally trying to be exclusionary. I hear a lot from organizations that say, ‘Well, of course anyone is welcome,’ or “We put all these things in place and no one came.’ My answer is always, ‘Well, how did you invite people in a way that lets them know they are welcome? How did you extend that invitation in a way that lets folks know you have considered them in advance and expect them to attend and be part of the shared artistic experience you are creating? You do that through communication, in the way you message, in the way you connect and create an ongoing relationship with the community, and then how you carry that invitation and welcome throughout the experience in your space.”
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Tags: ADA , Accessibility , Leadership