The Arts Are for Everyone: Making Your Programming More Accessible

Today’s blog post is written by Laura Baker, Data Migration Specialist, PatronManager.

When you hear the phrase “arts accessibility,” what jumps to the forefront of your mind? Like many, you might first think about physical accommodations having to do with the layout of your venue, such as accessible entrances, elevators, bathrooms, seating, etc. And these things are extremely important — your venue should be in compliance with ADA regulations and standards so that patrons with mobility concerns can safely travel your space and participate in all of your organization’s offerings; but we can and should be doing more than this!

The arts are meant to be enjoyed by everyone, and it is our obligation as arts administrators to ensure that each and every person who comes through our doors is given the opportunity to experience the arts in the fullest way possible, not just be in attendance. So what can we do to make our programming more inclusive and accessible? Here are some ideas from organizations I’ve worked with in the past to help you get started:

Audio Description

Audio description sometimes referred to as video or visual description, is defined by the Federal Government as “a means to inform individuals who are blind or who have low vision about visual content essential for comprehension.” So for theaters, audio description might include the description of physical actions (sight “gags”), actors entrances/exits, plus the detailing of key props, costumes, and set changes. For museums or other miscellaneous pop-up exhibits, an audio description tour will focus more on describing specific physical details of a piece of art (size, shape, color, texture, etc.) rather than on the history of the piece or the artist. Essentially, audio description can enhance an experience in ways that other mainstream audio tours and narration might not.  

So this all sounds great, but how can you implement audio description at your organization? At the last theatre I worked at, a group of staff members (including myself) was interested in learning how to audio describe, so we reached out to local audio describers in our community to find out how they got started. They ultimately put us in touch with the Audio Description Coalition, and we were able to set up a training! This involved one classroom session that was a couple hours long, a lot of observation (going to listen to other local describers, listening to descriptions on YouTube, etc.), and plenty of practice. As a side note: there is not currently an official audio describer certification, but there are trainings supported by the ACB — find more information here.

Alternatively, there are probably already some volunteer or freelance audio describers in your community! Try contacting your local access organizations or talk to other arts organizations in your area to see if they have any contacts. As a volunteer audio describer myself, I have found the community to be very generous and willing to help when called upon.

Touch Tours

Touch tours are a great way to enhance an audio described performance/exhibit even further. A touch tour allows patrons who are visually impaired to “see” through touch. For a performing arts organization, this could be a guided hands-on tour of props, costumes, and set pieces; for a museum, it could be a staff or docent-led tour of any “touchable” pieces on exhibit. So how do you get started?

If your organization is a museum that already has hired docents or tour guides, find out from your curator which objects are appropriate for human touch and then give your guides some training on how to best facilitate these types of tours. For theatre companies, ask a props master or costume designer if they’d be willing to participate in a special behind-the-scenes tour either pre- or post-show, even if just for a single performance of a run. In my experience, actors have also enjoyed volunteering for these types of things. I’ve worked with a couple performers who have even offered to have their wigs and costumes touched while they were in character!

Closed Captioning

Of course! This feels like an obvious one because closed captioning is so prevalent in other aspects of our society, namely television. I’ve worked with a couple organizations as they’ve rolled out new closed captioning devices, and each time, we have found the devices to be very popular (especially among patrons who are in the hearing impaired community but don’t know ASL). There are now even closed captioning apps specifically designed with theaters in mind that make it even easier for arts organizations to implement.

If you’re on a budget, here’s an idea (lovingly stolen) from a theatre company I worked with a while back. Take the text from the play script and put it in a PowerPoint presentation with white text on a black background (just a line or two per slide). Get a screen mirroring software that displays one screen to multiple devices. Display the PowerPoint on a few handheld devices (iPads or similar work fine), and have a volunteer click through the PowerPoint, keeping up with the dialogue. You can also choose to purchase a few anti-glare screens for devices if your venue is sensitive to light.

Sensory Friendly Programming

Sensory Friendly (sometimes referred to as “Relaxed”) programming facilitates a welcoming environment for people with sensory sensitivities, such as individuals on the autism spectrum. Sensory friendly offerings are becoming increasingly common — movie theaters are offering sensory friendly showtimes, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t as well! While considered especially important for family-oriented programs, sensory friendly options are good for guests of all ages that struggle with expression, overstimulation, or attention deficiency.

To get started, take some time to learn about sensory sensitivities, and educate your colleagues. Having a welcoming and understanding staff is one of the most important elements for accessibility programming. Common and important accommodations for sensory-friendly programming include keeping house lights on during a performance; reducing sound and lighting effects, such as eliminating strobe; and keeping a designated “quiet space” that patrons can visit as needed. It’s also important to maintain a relaxed environment, allowing patrons to get up, move around, and talk.

Some other tips — be generous with your refund policy! If you don’t normally allow cancellations or refunds, consider making exceptions for your sensory friendly programs. Keep crowds low — it can be overwhelming if there are large groups of people around. It may also be helpful to provide noise-canceling headphones or sensory toys by request.

All of these suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg! There are so many other things to consider and ways you can ensure your programming is not only physically accessible but also enjoyable and experiential for all patrons. After all, art is for everyone, so it’s well worth your time and effort to make it so.

For more information and resources on arts accessibility visit these websites:

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