Attuned. Reimagining Inclusive Spaces.

A collective reflection, compiled by Jennifer Gersten

Friday, May 28, 2021

Creating more inclusive arts spaces requires more than structural change. It’s about expanding our mindset to envision a richer cultural and human experience. 

Within the performing arts community, questions of accessibility for disabled people tend to be asked as a matter of ensuring compliance or satisfying a checklist. For organizations short on time and resources, imagining accessible initiatives, such as hiring ASL interpreters or ensuring that wheelchairs can move between seats, is often an afterthought to the artistry. As the majority of our spaces and performances are designed with only the able-bodied in mind, disabled people are saddled with the task of figuring out if and how they might make these environments work for them, and rarely the other way around. 

Yet our field is uniquely positioned to show how the insights of the disabled community can help arts groups not only reach broader audiences and inspire new practices, but reimagine how we relate to one another far beyond the stage. Considering accessibility begins with understanding that accessibility is not an issue facing disabled people alone, but an intersectional, collective responsibility. As the artist Carolyn Lazard writes in her guide “Accessibility in the Arts: A Promise and A Practice” (commissioned by Recess), collective considerations of accessibility undo “the rampant individualism that is a fiction for both disabled and nondisabled people: everyone has needs”—an understanding that Covid-19 has made universally clear. 

“Amid this pandemic, more than I’ve ever in my life, I see how much nondisabled people need the disabled community,” writes Amy Gaeta, a PhD student and contributor to the Disability Visibility Project. “We are experts when it comes to isolation and pandemics. We know how to advocate our legal rights as patients, navigate Medicaid and other private insurance claims, and stock up on supplies for weeks. We know how to live vulnerably, which is to live together. We know all this because for many of us, it’s our daily reality.” 

Implementing accessibility, at least at the beginning, might be slow or imperfect, and no two organizations will have the same solutions. Lazard encourages us to understand accessibility not as a one-time action or flawless guarantee, but as a “speculative practice:” An ongoing, creatively generative conversation that evolves with the needs of the community. Compiled from the work of disability rights advocates and allies, and the season-long mentorship between Copenhagen-based Enactlab (a “lab for change” based in Denmark) and composer and performer Molly Joyce, the recommendations below offer a starting point for performing arts groups who intend to make accessibility a priority. 

1. Establish accessibility as a foundation 

Accessibility is anything but an impediment or side note to artistic projects, which is how many arts organizations tend to see it. The dancer Jerron Herman, composer Molly Joyce, Lazard, artist and interpreter Brandon Kazen-Maddox, and countless others are at the vanguard of performers whose work explores how disability and accessibility can be a unique source of freedom, creative inquiry, and empowerment. At the leading British theater company Graeae, which is run by disabled people, each production is designed according to a particular “aesthetics of access,” in which performances are developed to suit the disabled participants’ individual needs. A typical Graeae production can include multisensory presentations, verbal and nonverbal language, and audiovisual accommodations all at once—a process the company has termed “cluttering.” “Clutter” creates shows that are highly specific to their participants, offering each a clear point of entry. Universal (Inclusive) Design offers language and guiding vision for any organization seeking to create its own accessibility benchmarks.  

“There is always something more to learn, experiment with, and improve upon.” - Molly Joyce

2. Create alongside the experts 

When accessibility considerations are left as a footnote, they tend to occur without the involvement of the disabled community, which often means that disabled people may be unable to access the work entirely. Because there is no single manifestation of disability, accessible spaces are best created by or in dialogue with collaborators who can attest to diverse experiences. These collaborators should be involved from the outset, writes Jacob Nossell, cofounder of National Sawdust mentor and collaborator Enactlab, to ensure that they can offer feedback throughout. For a multi-platform project titled Natural Disorder, Enactlab reconfigured the theater as a laboratory, drawing upon interviews with Nossell and others with cerebral palsy to develop new ways of translating the experience of disability to a broader audience. “Jacob was never the disabled person—he was actually the expert,” cofounder Kristian Martiny told us. More recently, inspired by its own Deaf members’ experiences of struggling through poor captions for Sondheim’s musicals, the theater company Deaf Broadway produced a version of Into the Woods accompanied by ASL over Zoom, giving Deaf audiences a rare opportunity to experience the text in a preferred language.

Organizations should also consider seeking out and hiring members of relevant communities to evaluate accessible aspects of a given production, such as sign language interpretation and audio description. Even when members of the disabled community are involved in a work’s creation, one should never presume mastery of accessible practices. Joyce—who hired a Deaf and another vision-impaired person to review Left and Right, her premiere for National Sawdust project’s ASL and audio descriptions— shares that “there is always something more to learn, experiment with, and improve upon.” 

3. Collaborate across disciplines for the long term

Interdisciplinary collaborations can give projects a comprehensive scope. Such collaborations tend to be most effective when they occur over the long term, fostering a sense of community and trust that will extend far beyond the project itself. The team at Enactlab models a global approach to accessible art, assembling international cohorts of disabled people, artists, and scientific researchers, among others, to shape an interdisciplinary approach to storytelling. Nossell writes that organizations should “bear the universal in mind”—that is, people with and without disabilities—to create works that facilitate dialogue and understanding for many different groups. 

4. Consider different forms of embodiment    

Addressing accessibility within a performance can be more than a matter of making it possible for people with disabilities to attend and understand what is happening—it can transform the performance itself. Consider how a performance might impart sensory information for various groups. How can a theater performance serve blind people through sound design? How might a music performance serve Deaf people through tactile vibrations? Graeae Theater’s pioneering work in crafting multisensory experiences offers a valuable source of inspiration for how organizations might expand their thinking about the intersection of art and accessibility. The surge in online programming over the course of the pandemic has been a boon for accessibility, as many people who could not access physical spaces are now able to summon events from their devices. As the pandemic abates and the arts return in person, many in the disability community fear that those options will no longer be offered. Organizations should consider making livestreaming or accompanying website material de rigueur, and consider ways to offer both physical and nonphysical spaces in order to provide the most accessible experience for all. 

5. Account for disability’s intersections 

Accessibility concerns not only disability, but also its intersections—class, race, gender, and sexuality. Pricing events on a sliding scale; constructing all-gender restrooms; translating materials in languages besides English; and offering childcare are but a few ways in which an organization can lower a space’s barrier to entry. As the disabled dancer and choreographer Alice Sheppard indicates in her manifesto on intersectional disability arts, considering the all-encompassing community of disability will open a critical vista onto the future of accessibility.  

6. Put accessibility in the budget and timeline 

As creative as one can be with low-cost accessibility solutions, many accommodations stand to be costly. Though a small organization might not ultimately be able to afford as many accommodations as it would like, accessibility, as Lazard writes, is rooted more in attitude or orientation than in financial resources, and every step counts. To ensure that it is a priority, accessibility ought to be present in the budget from the outset, not shoehorned in at the end.