Imagine this: you bought tickets to your favorite orchestra’s next concert. You’ve been looking forward to it for weeks. You planned your day around it, got dressed up special, and made sure that your friend was on their way to meet you there. But when you arrived, a single set of steps kept you from attending. You find a way up the stairs, but there’s no place for you to sit in the audience. And even if you did, there wouldn’t be anywhere for you to use the bathroom.
This is the very real experience of many people with disabilities. Often, they need to call the venue before even purchasing a ticket, find the right person to speak with, and then ask a myriad of questions just to determine if the space is accessible to them.
In 2016, over 40 million people in the United States reported a disability. How many of these people couldn’t attend your last concert because of accessibility limitations? Fortunately, there are simple ways to make people with disabilities more welcome to participate in your next classical music event.
What is Accessibility?
Accessibility seems simple, but it’s much more than installing ramps and elevators. According to authors Paul T. Jaeger and Cynthia Ann Bowman in their book Understanding Disability, “Access can include entering and maneuvering around buildings, being allowed to actively and meaningfully participate in employment and other social functions, and employing assistive technology to use objects in a manner similar to people without disabilities.” Beyond that, access also includes broader aspects such as whether the customer service agents are equipped to help those with disabilities and the extent of education opportunities. Access is multi-faceted and it has a huge effect on the everyday lives of your patrons with disabilities.
1. Accessibility Information
Is your concert venue physically accessible to all, both at the front door and beyond? Does it have an ADA-compliant bathroom? Is there special seating for audience members with ambulatory disabilities? For wheelchair users?
Be sure to include all accessibility information wherever the event is announced. This includes your event’s website page, your mailings (both email and direct mail), and on the online ticket page. If you don’t have access to the ticket page, be sure to speak to the company who does and ask to include this information. If tickets are sold over the phone, be sure that your ticket agents have the necessary accessibility information on hand. A few simple words can make a world of difference. For a great example, look at Carnegie Hall’s accessibility page.
2. ADA-Compliant Website
Is your website itself ADA-compliant? If music lovers with disabilities can’t interact with your website, they simply won’t know about your events.
Creating an accessible website isn’t only about captioning your videos and including alt-text on your images so that it’s compatible with screen-reading programs; it’s also about being sure that one can navigate with only a keyboard and that the foreground text is appropriately contrasting with the background. This article in the Entrepreneur lays out the best way to check the various aspects of your website for ADA compliancy and the Bureau of Internet Accessibility provides a free graded test of your website. Hiring a consultant is a great way to get started and to keep up to date.
3. Hearing-Assistive Products
Products for those with hearing impairment are available to rent or buy for your event. Be sure to mention them alongside the other accessibility information (above) and provide an easy way for those who need them to ask for them ahead of time. This way, you’ll know how many you’ll need on the day of the event and you can be more efficient with your rentals or purchasing.
4. Usher Training
While diversity and inclusion training may happen for your staff and board, it doesn’t always happen for those who work most closely with your audience members: the ushers and box-office employees. Take time in your staff meeting with your ushers and box-office employees to go through the basics of disabilities to increase awareness, education, and compassion. Another option is to train the House Managers, who then pass on their training to the ushers. Disability Rights Online is a great place to start. They lay out the basics on their website and they also provide opportunities for specialized in-person training.
5. Alternative Format Programs
Have several large print programs and Braille programs on hand at the event for those who are visually impaired. They’ll thank you! Be sure to let the ushers know where they will be kept, so that they’ll be ready to assist your audience members who have visual impairments. If you cannot create Braille documents, you can also provide electronic versions of the program that can be read by their accessibility devices. You can find a guide to making accessible documents online here and tips for accessible text here.
If you’re using electronic formats, be sure that the venue has reliable Internet access. Don’t assume that everyone has data usage or the most updated technology. Check in with the venue ahead of time for passwords and other access information; then, have that information available to your patrons who use screen-reading programs or other Internet-reliant technology.
Accessibility becomes a unique challenge when the orchestra ventures outside the concert hall. While understandable, it’s not too different from performing in your usual venue. Partner with the performance venue and create an accessibility plan together. Most likely, they already have certain things in place, so you can just go onward from there.
Creating an inclusive and accessible environment for your patrons is just the first step. Community begins with inclusivity, but continues with education, participation, leadership opportunities, and representation.