Evening the Playing Field at Access Night 2015


From left to right:
Liz Tregger (ASL interpreter), Mike Ervin (Access Project Coordinator),
Monty Cole (Artistic Programs Manager) kick off the evening.


Written by Braden Cleary, Producing Intern

More than 1 in every 10 people in Illinois has some kind of disability. That means that with every sold-out performance at Victory Gardens, there could be up to 29 people in the audience who identify as having a disability. From an intern’s perspective, it was hugely inspiring to see 64 Audience Services professionals from 21 institutions from across the city come together for a common cause.  That is why it is so important for cultural institutions to understand accessibility services in order to create equitable and enjoyable experiences for all patrons, no matter what obstacles they may face.

The first annual Access Night at Victory Gardens aimed to do just that – bridge the gap between patrons who identify as having a disability and the front of house staffs at cultural institutions across Chicago. By interacting with hands-on workshops about American Sign Language translation, audio description, physical accessibility, touch tours, and live open captioning, audience services professionals came together to learn how to make their organizations more accessible as well as learn the language necessary to communicate about accessibility. The event ended in a question and answer session with a panel of disability advocates and audience services professionals who were able to provide honest insight from the perspective of patrons with disabilities. It acted as a great reminder that even though Chicago is huge, the arts and cultural community isn’t! If we all work together to educate ourselves about disabilities, we can “even the playing field” not only for patrons, but for artists too.

Here are the five most important lessons I learned at Access Night 2015:

1. Person first! When interacting with a patron with a disability, remember that they are a person too – “a man who is deaf or hard of hearing” instead of, “a deaf man.”

2. Always introduce yourself as an employe when offering assistance. “Hello ma’am, my name is Braden Cleary and I am an intern here at Victory Gardens. Can I help you with anything tonight?

3. If a patron or artist with a disability declines your assistance, accept it. Never respond, “are you sure?” Yes. They are sure.

4. When communicating with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, never pretend to understand what he or she said if you really didn’t. Simply ask them to repeat themselves until you understand.

5. Accessibility assistance doesn’t stop at getting patrons into the building. Patrons with disabilities typically appreciate someone checking in with them at intermission and when the production is over.

But how can you make your institution more accessible? Access Night taught me that there are many ways to navigate this conundrum, but perhaps the most cost-effective way to introduce accessibility services (with theaters in mind) is through touch tours. Having a house manager lead a touch tour of the set and props before a performance is a great way to supply and accessible service with little financial investment. Those wishing to take further steps towards accessibility can think about accommodating restrooms, providing ramps as an alternative to stairs, hiring ASL interpreters and audio describers, and accommodating heavy doors. Even installing a doorbell could be a great alternative if your budget doesn’t allow for fully automated doors!

I encourage you to keep up with Victory Garden’s Access Project here in order to stay up-to-date on future accessible performances and events.