By RightsViews Staff Writer Carina Goebelbecker
Theater is a heartbeat of community. Theaters are a microcosm of society, situating audience members within entrenched social and cultural dynamics, while allowing them to imagine and empathize with characters onstage. Despite 26% of adult Americans having some type of disability, theaters are traditionally not accessible to disabled people, an extension of the challenges disabled folks face when navigating their daily routines. If all the world’s a stage, it should be an accessible one.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is one of the most prominent pieces of legislation relating to disability. The ADA National Network defines disability as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” However, disability is more contextual. In the journal article “Disability Worlds,” theorists Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp (2013) define disability as “created by the social and material conditions that ‘dis-able’ the full participation of a variety of minds and bodies…the result of negative interactions between a person with an impairment and his or her social environment” (p. 54). The authors point to disability as a social construction of identity formed by an individual’s experiences with others in their community. Disability is much larger than the individual person as defined by the ADA.
Under ADA requirements, public accommodations, such as theaters, must provide equal access for disabled people. Access includes auxiliary aids and services (closed captions and open captions), assistive listening devices, and accessible seating. While accessibility is required under ADA law, the responsibility falls on theaters to make the necessary accommodations available to their patrons, with some theaters doing better accessibility work than others.
Yet adhering to ADA law is not enough. The resident lighting designer at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and wheelchair user Michael K. Maag discussed the limits of the ADA law in an American Theater Magazine interview, stating that the ADA is the “absolute minimum you can do to avoid looking like a jerk.” Theater industry workers need to use their inventive skills to make disability accessibility a priority. Maag noted that “we’ve found that when we include others, things get better for all, and the art gets better too.” Greater accessibility benefits all patrons and theater artists by providing services that improve the quality of the experience for all.
In an essay for HowlRound Howard Sherman, an arts administrator and author posits that “if equity, diversity, and inclusion are truly goals for the field, accessibility should be as well. And not just because it’s the law.” Theaters should proactively address ADA requirements and keep themselves up-to-date with the needs and requests of disabled people. Theater Development Fund (TDF), for example, offers accessibility programs. However, the application process is arduous and the program is not yet widely known.
Authentic accessibility extends to all aspects of the theatrical space, including the stage and backstage areas. In an interview with American Theater Magazine, performer Ryan Haddad stated that, “Even if you check every box, it doesn’t mean that my ability to be in your space and function in your space is conducive to my needs or my practice.” Haddad found that he had to advocate for himself and know his rights. During Deaf West Theater’s 2015 production of Spring Awakening at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, people had to carry performer and wheelchair user Ali Stroker backstage, for there were stairs that she could not navigate. The theater is ADA compliant for the audience, but not backstage for the performers and crew. Theater workers should be proactive, asking performers and crew members for what they need and making sure their requests are fulfilled.
A lack of need fulfillment is a key reason why theater performances and spaces should hire disabled accessibility consultants. The hiring of disabled accessibility consultants supports Sins Invalid’s notion of Disability Justice, by uplifting the full community through representation in leadership. An instrumental aspect of disability justice is making accessibility an ingrained factor in the decision-making process. Accessibility should be intertwined with the architecture of a space with captions built into the set, so that it is part of the storytelling. The Public Theater, for example, is a nonprofit Off Broadway theater doing great work to make their offerings accessible. Ideally, the Public Theater’s impact will have a domino effect, inspiring others to improve their accessibility services as well.
In order to make these spaces more accessible, there needs to be a cultural shift. If theater is the heartbeat of community, theatermakers need to work harder to serve the full scope of their community, including disabled people. While this is not an easy or fast task, it is a necessary one. To put it plainly, there’s a lot of stuff we got to do.
Cover Image Source:
“state theater” by JSmith Photo is marked with CC BY-ND 2.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/?ref=openverse