Last Tuesday at this time, I was frantically packing way too many clothes in my suitcase for a 2-night, 3-day work trip to Boston and nervously chewing my fingernails to little nubs, wondering how I would ever survive said 2-night, 3-day work trip away from my one-year old (I did survive and so did she!). I had little idea what would be in store for me at the LEAD (Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability) conference in Boston besides the fact that LEAD is a network based at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. But you know it was worthwhile stuff when you’re still mulling it over, citing lessons you learned in conversations, and wondering how you can do justice to this work that so desperately needs to be done: ensuring access to the arts both at your organization and in the greater Pittsburgh community.
So what are these lessons? Here’s a few biggies:
1. Great accessibility is great for everyone. When I told some people that I was going to begin offering large-print and Braille programs for PBT performances, I would often get the response, “Why would a person who is blind want to see the ballet?” It frankly doesn’t matter to me why someone who is blind wants to see the ballet. My concern is that if the desire is there, how can I ensure that what we offer–ballet–is accessible to them, whatever their individual needs might be. Sure, a Braille program is a very specific accessibility service, but what about patrons whose vision is degrading? I’ve often heard the stat that the average age of entry into regular ticket buying for ballet is in the mid-40s. Put two and two together, and it is quite possible that many of our patrons could benefit from large print programs. I experienced this firsthand at the conference when I was simultaneously listening to the keynote speaker and reading the real-time captioning on the CART system. I understood more of what was being said, even though most often the CART technology is used as a service for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.And there are so many more features in our daily lives that were created for people with disabilities that make everyone’s lives easier. Automatic doors, anyone??
2. Train your staff, train your staff, train your staff. A common thread that ran through many of the sessions was that it doesn’t matter how good your access services are. If the first encounter a person with disabilities has is with an uninformed, disrespectful representative of your organization, how do you think they’re going to rate their experience at your production or museum? Probably not well because (in a variation of lesson #1 above) great customer service for people with disabilities is great customer service for everyone. So I have this big accessibility initiative at PBT that I’m spearheading. Guess what it’s missing? Say it with me: “train your staff, train your staff, train your staff.”
3. Know your responsibilities and legal obligations for providing access services. The United States can be commended for having various laws in place to protect people with disabilities from discrimination, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973) and the Americans for Disabilities Act, or the ADA (1992, amended 2010). That being said, these laws are also complex and dense and, depending upon how your organization or business is operated, can vary about what you are legally obligated to provide. For non-profits, Title III of the ADA is your best friend. In a nutshell, it says that your must provide “reasonable accommodations” unless providing these accommodations would provide an “undue burden” to the organization. Well, if that isn’t vague, I don’t know what is. But sometimes vagueness has a way of getting us to talk about what it means. In the case of figuring out what your legal obligations and responsibilities are–that discussion is the first place to start. This is also a huge part of my accessibility initiative that I realize is missing. Because PBT performs in a space which it does not own, a discussion needs to occur with the owners about who is responsible for providing which access services. Not only will it be important for everyone to know their own legal obligations, but we now have the added task of communicating those legal obligations to another entity and working closely together to ensure that the services are provided in the most effective way possible.
4. Last but not least, Betty Siegel, the Executive Director at LEAD, said in her opening remarks that like any other asset to a business, accessibility is an asset your organization. She charged all of the participants to remember this as they returned to their work. Duly noted, Betty. I will do my best to advocate for accessibility at every level, and I start by passing on that charge to all of you! Say it with me: Accessibility is an asset! Accessibility is an asset!
Many thanks to the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and the FISA Foundation for sponsoring my attendance at the LEAD Conference.