Leadership / 10.29.21
Welcoming Words — Why Language is Essential for Accessibility Equity in All Live Entertainment Genres
Forty years ago, the New Jersey Theatre Alliance was founded by five professional theaters “on the belief that the theatre community is stronger united, not divided, and that one theater’s success is a success for all.” Lots of things have changed since 1981, including the number of organizations now involved (40 in total). In addition to professionalism and integrity, innovation and creativity, collaboration and partnership, the group’s core values include equity and access, which embraces the need for the community to create an inclusive and welcoming experience for everyone.
New Jersey Theatre Alliance Executive Director John McEwen and Cultural Access Coordinator Beth Prevor are both strong advocates for accessibility equity, but to them this goes far beyond obvious physical barriers such as stairs and bathrooms — the initial focus of many venues after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. It even goes beyond all the advances in assistive technology over the decades that now enable individuals with a disability to enjoy the live entertainment experience more fully. In addition to these and other important areas to ensure accessibility equity, we must be mindful and intentional about the language we use to communicate.
“Language is what shows me a person is understanding or welcoming,” Prevor says. “It is what gives me an impression of a person.”
While society has increasingly focused on the inappropriate language used when referring to other minority or disenfranchised groups, the disability community has received less attention overall. The most outdated language has been cast aside by most people, yet McEwen says he is still surprised at times.
“There are some terms that are completely inappropriate,” he says. “For example, phrases like ‘wheelchair bound’ and ‘confined to a wheelchair’ are still being used today, and that is very off-putting to people.”
“That also shows whether you’re willing to listen to a person,” Prevor says. “I think terminology has changed so much over time and people just do not know. People’s exposure to people with disabilities varies a lot. I cannot tell you how many times you see the words [‘wheelchair bound’]. It is in the media, it is on the news, it is definitely in the newspapers that people use ‘wheelchair bound’. It is people’s understanding and willingness to listen and know that is not an acceptable term, and whether you understand what you are saying when you say that. You are not bound to your wheelchair.”
Prevor points to another example.
“I work a lot with deaf people,” she says, “and the issue of ‘hearing impaired’ versus ‘hard of hearing’ became a big issue in that community. It kind of morphed, and now ‘hearing impaired’ is not a term that is used within that community. Just like ‘deaf and dumb’ and ‘deaf mute,’ things have changed over time. I used to work for the Board of Education. I cannot tell you how many calls I would get [during which people would use ‘deaf mute’]. You just have to have a conversation with the person to say, ‘We do not use that term anymore.’ For the most part, I never really had anybody who came back to me and said, ‘No, but …’ They just listened and it becomes a learning opportunity.”
Both McEwen and Prevor concede that language is fluid and that there can be more than one way to communicate in a way that feels welcoming.
“There are some different points of view with regards to language,” McEwen says. “Recently there have been organizations that have taken a social-justice position [by putting the disability first] rather than people-first language, which is still appropriate to use. [You may say] ‘an individual with a disability’ [or] ‘an individual who has hearing loss,’ but for a lot of people with disabilities today, their disability is a part of them. For example, Beth and I have a colleague who refers to herself as ‘the disabled actor.’ They are proud of their disability and [use] much more of a social-justice position in the terminology.”
McEwen continues, “If you are going to take a particular stance like first-person language or the social-justice language where you put the disability first, that is a policy that an organization chooses to take on and, therefore, it should be consistent in all of their communications when they are marketing themselves, in materials and press releases; that is the policy. There are individuals in the disability community who respond very favorably to the social-justice position … I believe an organization should choose a policy to be consistent, but also be aware that there might be some individuals in conversations that would prefer to be referred to differently. They will respect your organization’s position, but when you are communicating with them individually, they might prefer to be referred to in a different way; just to be aware and open to that is important.”
“You can establish the format that you want to use and then you just have to respect the people,” Prevor says. “As John said, if someone with a disability should contact you and use disability-first language, and that is how they refer to themselves, then that is OK. The whole identity issue is disability-first or identity-first or people-first language. You do not have that many choices … [and] you are not going to please everybody. You are going to have certain language, certain positions that your organization has decided to utilize, and that is fine. In terms of the first-person language terms or the disability-identity terms, do not be afraid to take a stand and have a policy.”
McEwen points to Dance NYC as an example of an organization that has done just that.
“They are all about disability-identify language,” he says. “That is a policy that their organization has made, and it is consistent in all their communications: marketing, press releases, grant applications. They have had people call and express a difference of opinion. They have been respectful of that, but they as an organization, in the communications that they put out to the public, this is the policy and how they address it. Of course, if they are working with somebody on a one-on-one [basis], they will take the feedback from that person, and if they need to adjust how they refer to them based upon the discussion with that individual, of course, they will make those adjustments. But they did make a policy as an organization to take the identity position over the people-first language position.”
Some organizations have taken a proactive approach and formed advisory committees to help them learn how best to deal with language and other issues impacting the disability community and its various subsets.
“We are big believers in forming advisory committees or sharing an advisory committee with a neighboring cultural organization,” says McEwen, adding that you can reach out to service organizations in your community that serve people with disabilities, such as independent living centers, or county offices for people with disabilities that exist to improve quality of life. “You want to include people that you are looking to serve in your conversations. We have found it extremely valuable to make these connections. Making policies in a vacuum never works. In my experience over the years, working with advisory committees [has been extremely helpful]. They can serve as ambassadors. They can provide guidance in your policies, and they can certainly assist you with sensitivity training for front-of-house employees, whether it be ticket office staff, ushers or concessions. You want to create a welcoming environment, and a big piece of that is how you address your patrons and making them feel comfortable.”
Prevor adds, “A lot of organizations are setting up EDI groups or affinity groups. Start with your consumers [and] get some feedback from people that have bought tickets from your organization. I am assuming at some point somebody with a disability has bought a ticket. If there is a database, do a focus group; do something with people that have experience with the individual organization, start there. I think you will get a lot of really good information from people that have already bought tickets, either who have a disability themselves or have family members that have disabilities. Also look to people within the organization that have disabilities. There are also lots of people that have hidden disabilities that might be interested to be asked [to help] their organizations to learn more about people with disabilities.”
That said, do not assume you can lean on people to help you via an advisory board without offering to pay for their guidance and expertise.
“We pay them anywhere from $250 to $350 a year,” McEwen says. “That is probably quarterly meetings. From what I have heard from other organizations, that is an average.”
Prevor continues, “I think there is a range of what you can pay, but what I have heard, especially from disabled people, is that people are tired of giving up their intellectual information for free and being asked over and over again without compensation. Respect that we are asking for information to help our organization, and the respect that it is worth something is really important. There is no other group of people that you would go to and ask for free advice that is going to benefit your organization, so I think it shows respect for people’s knowledge.”
“Some organizations have had great success putting an article in their member newsletter [announcing] that they are looking to start an advisory committee, that they are looking to be more inclusive and expanding their programs to reach all constituents, including people with disabilities, if anyone is interested in learning more,” McEwen says. “A lot of organizations have had great success with that. People have reached out that they never would have connected with otherwise, and that really deepens the engagement with your patrons.”
Additionally, McEwen and Prevor note the importance of having at least one or two people with a disability involved in sensitivity training for ticket office and other front-of-house staff.
“That is a wonderful time to ask questions about language and the dos and don’ts,” says McEwen. “Management should also be included in this training.”
In terms of training, McEwen also notes the importance of ensuring all ticket office staff are knowledgeable about the accessibility program that an organization is offering as well as the facility.
“Very often, [the ticket office] is the first point of connection that the public has with the organization, so often a question is asked of somebody who is not aware of any of the barriers that the venue might have. That, again, is not welcoming. It is not respectful for those in the ticket office not to know everything about the barriers and the accommodations that their facility offers. They are not there just to be involved in a transaction,” McEwen says. “They are also there to provide accurate information. If they do not know the answer, then they should not gloss over it or lie. You still hear horror stories that, at the ticket office, they do not always fully know their own organization, then the person shows up at the venue and this is not what they were told when they purchased their ticket. Organizations need to really assess their orientation in terms of training their ticket services staff. They need to ensure that [when it comes to] accessibility, accommodation, programs and services, the ticket office is really clear about what their own organization offers.”
In the end, Prevor says it all comes down to respect.
“If I call, I want to know, can I go with my scooter, or can you give me a chair? I do not want to be looked at [differently], and sometimes I am at box offices; it is uncomfortable, and it is not welcoming. I want to be able to ask a question and [know] somebody is not going to look at me cockeyed. I think it really does come down to respecting me as a person. I am different. You are different. We all have differences,” she says. “Maybe there is a little step to get into the place, and that might be fine for some people. Maybe it would not be fine for other people. The only person that really is going to know what they need is the disabled person. They know exactly what they need, what they can do and what they cannot do, so I think having this open conversation is really important. The language used during those conversations gives me an impression of a person. It is really about respect, how we use language for anybody, whether it is a person with a disability or not.”
Editor’s Note: INTIX plans to expand upon the use of welcoming language in a subsequent story. Additionally, there are several accessibility workshops scheduled for INTIX 2022, including “Disability and Anti-ableism in Policy, Planning, and EDI,” led by Sarah J. Hom from Roundabout Theatre Company, as well as “Just The Ticket! Best Practices for Ticketing and Accessibility” and “Service First! Customer Service and Accessibility,” both led by Dani Rose of Ticket Philadelphia.
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Tags: Accessibility , Leadership