The future for accessibility in the Arts has been drawn by a creative collaboration of many groups acting individually with the common goal of inclusion. These organizations come from communities both large and small, all with the intent on bringing excitement and enjoyment to the public. For many years these communities have created strong cultural identities with the intent to share these cherished places.
The Arts are such important parts of our cultural identity that full inclusion should be woven into the fabric of their mission. Truth be told one would be hard pressed to find any of these organizations against full inclusion the question is "how do we get from A to B to inclusion." The fear of doing it wrong has plagued many organizations decades before and after the passage of the ADA. The modern landscape of access in theaters and museums is really held within each individual entity and their own "personal" commitment to creating access and inclusion. The one thing I always think about when working in the arts is "how can I get more bodies in the door." The organization itself is responsible for putting out a good product and the disability community is responsible for getting people in the door enjoying the experience.
There is good news, access to the Arts started many years ago and has continued with strong community leadership and the future looks promising from all angles of inclusion. There is a woman from The Kennedy Center in Washington DC, Betty Siegel, who has been pivotal in the past and future of inclusion. Her work and outreach paved the road for museums, theaters and cultural institutions to better understand proper policies and procedures for access and inclusion. She also created the very important LEAD conference (Leadership and Exchange in Arts and Disability) which offers a yearly opportunity for all organizations to learn about inclusive practices.
Advocates for access in the arts have been able to create the proper policies to govern without "jailing" the creative process. Although some cultural leaders will look for legal loopholes, others will build bridges, but one way or another these places are part of our communities and should belong to the people, all of the people. True inclusion should not be limited to the physical space but the entire experience must be accessible. From Board members to staff, access needs to be spoken about and included openly and often. The arts represent all of our senses and it puts them together in unique ways that should be experienced by everyone. The future of access is as wide as any canvas and more colorful than any costume. The possibilities seem endless and the technology is unstoppable. The largest obstacles seem to be two things, lack of funding and space that is poorly designed. Make no mistake these are huge obstacles when you are working with limited resources but hearts filled with desire for inclusion.
Here's what the future looks like. Currently places such as Indianapolis, Arizona, Chicago, New Jersey , Boston, Florida, Pittsburgh and the Bay Area have websites or Facebook pages dedicated to access in the Arts. Having the ability to reach out to the community via social media is an advance in access to the arts.
Social media has given cultural organizations the ability to reach out to the diverse disability community in a way that is cost effective and easy to maintain. On these websites you will learn that many museums and theaters provide services such as captioned videos, sign language interpreters, Braille or large print and assisted listening devices. One technology that all organizations need to consider is the inexpensive hearing loop systems. These provide audio assistance for hundreds of thousands using hearing aids by enhancing the ability to hear when someone is using a microphone or PA system. There are also innovative ways to use tactile displays for guest experience. The museum at Pearl Harbor has amazing tactile displays of the model ships and artifacts from the infamous day in history. Very soon it will also be viable to offer sign language interpretation via the smartphone so people who are deaf or hard of hearing will be able to use their own device at their own leisure for on-demand interpretation.
The Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago offers audio described performances and touch tours of the set for people who are blind or have low vision. Both offerings are easy to initiate and have been overly successful. Children's Museums across the country have been offering special programs for families and children with disabilities such as Autism. Finally, many communities have created working groups or consortium to brainstorm the possibilities for inclusion.
Lynn Walsh Co-Chair, Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium (CCAC), says:
From what I'm seeing in Chicago, I think the future looks bright for access in the arts. I am encouraged by the number of cultural organizations enthusiastically participating in workshops offered by CCAC. Attendance for the LEAD conference (Leadership Exchange in Arts & Disability), which was held in Chicago last year, was at an all-time high. But what cultural administrators need to understand is that the job is never done. To be accessible and inclusive is an on-going commitment. In the perfect access world, all cultural organizations would understand the importance of having a position dedicated to access and inclusion. A position such as this would ensure accessibility and inclusiveness throughout the organization-from programing to exhibits, admissions to operations, from behind the scenes to all things related to staffing-access and inclusion must be addressed in all areas, all of the time.
Having things such as an Access Coordinator, alternate format materials, special programs and strong partnerships seem very forward thinking, but the future of inclusion in the arts may depend on it. It's safe to say that our Arts and Cultural organizations are doing something but they need to do more. I am not saying they need to jump in the pool but at least get on the accessible pool lift and start lowering your whole body slowly into the water.