Following Leslye Orr’s lively keynote address, we had a panel in which the representatives of four major cultural and educational institutions talked about accessibility-related efforts and issues. The panelists of the day were Courtney Gerber of the Walker, Hunter Gullickson of the Guthrie Theater, Debbi Hegstrom of the MIA, Deb Helmke of Interact and Kit Wilhite of the Science Museum of Minnesota. Euan Kerr of Minnesota Public Radio served as the moderator.
The discussion was well-rounded, stimulating and regrettably punctuated by the sounds of my frantic typing. Hunter kicked it off by explaining that it’s the responsibility of the institution to make itself more financially and physically accessible. The issue of physical accessibility in particular warrants more attention, since it tends to get over-simplified. It’s not just about cramming the architectural blueprints with ramps and elevators. As Courtney mentioned, every detail of a physical space plays a big role in building a welcoming environment.
On the subject of over-simplification, one must remember that the issue of accessibility encompasses more than just ability, socioeconomic status and cultural background. Kit gave a very demonstrative example about interacting with children with disabilities. Understanding the needs and behaviors of a younger demographic won’t be a walk in the park, so talk to their parents. Maintain an open exchange of information with them and work together as much as possible.
So far the panel had touched on challenges in both interpersonal and institutional spheres, but how about the internal conflicts that get in the way of fighting the good fight? Even after years of experience, thinking of ways to help a group who faces different challenges can be still daunting. Kit described a conundrum familiar to so many of us: you want to take risks, to push the envelope and bring a fresh spark to current endeavors. At the same time, however, there is the fear of over-stepping boundaries and the resulting desire to be a more passive listener. As hard as it may initially be, it’s important to make sure the dilemma doesn’t paralyze you. It’s no less crucial to keep a flexible mindset that is open to innovation and creativity; in the words of Euan, what works for one group might not work for the other. To make sure efforts don’t stagnate, engage with other organizations to exchange findings and program development ideas.
By the end of the panel, my fingers were starting to feel like they’d been trampled on by several large men. But the audience was almost bursting with questions, so I shelved all wistful thoughts of ice packs and Bloody Marys for another round of note-taking. Here are the results!
Q & A:
Q: Hunter, could you talk to us about user experiences of the open-captioning system at the Guthrie?
Hunter: The open-captioning system is basically live text that scrolls in tandem with the show. We have a live operator who gets the script in advance, as well as an LED screen. A lot of usage comes from people who are deaf/hard of hearing as well as people with English as a second language. It works particularly well with Shakespeare shows or ones featuring people with more difficult accents. The reactions so far have been wonderful! Results of randomly-conducted surveys show that 90% of the audience has used it at some point during the show.
Q: How often do institutions consider the accessibility of their entrance areas? Prior to attending a show at the Opera Center, a friend of mine found that getting from the ramp to the theater was surprisingly difficult. It’s an especially important issue since we often face the prospect of bad weather conditions.
Debbi: Taking this matter into consideration, we’ve built accessible parking spaces right in front of the MIA building. It’s always a bit of a struggle when changing the landscape is involved – the accessibility team was flabbergasted by how much it took just to create those spots.
Courtney: It all comes down to the initial conversation. There will be physical challenges present in each institution’s structure, but if we provide visitors with disabilities and their caregivers enough information in advance and have a member of the staff present to greet and help, it can really make a huge difference.
Q: In terms of internal advocacy, are you thinking of aligning your efforts with organizations that offer programs for seniors? How does that demographic figure in your long-term plan?
Courtney: To the first question: yes, definitely. Considering this issue was a big part of what spurred us to collaborate with the Alzheimer’s Association and begin the Contemporary Journeys program. Through said program we’ve developed a lot of good relations with senior citizens and day activity centers all over the Twin Cities.
Debbi: We have a program called Discover Your Story for people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers – it’s offer to day-care centers, but walk-in public tours are available as well. We’re working on providing assisted listening devices for our tours.
Leslye: When keeping senior citizens in mind, don’t neglect issues of visibility. At the Dreamland Arts theater, signs were provided, but people kept tripping all the same because they were shifted from an extremely bright place to an extremely dark one. Having guides present is extremely helpful.
Courtney: With regards to physical comfort, there are amazing gallery stools that can be purchased.
For visitors who are a little less stable on their feet, we obtained folding chairs that are light, comfortable and easy to place in galleries.
Deb: It’s also very useful to have a network of people that one can ask for information regarding a place’s degree of accessibility.
Q: I work with a center dealing with adults with mental disabilities. We’ve had some collaborations and partnerships with numerous organizations, including the Walker. It has produced great results for us, but we were wondering what we could do for cultural organizations as people who work directly with people with disabilities. How can we contribute to your accessibility-related efforts?
Debbi: When in a partnership with us, feel free to tell us when you spot an event that might fit well with our agenda. Also, let us know what you want to see in our institutions. Think of it as a good opportunity to expand awareness.
Leslye: Give us as many details about your population so that everything can be worked out in advance and expectations can be met on everyone’s part. Then nobody will feel like they’ve crossed boundaries or that they’ve overestimated their clients.
Courtney: Be open – feel free to give us honest feedback on what we’re doing right and what we’re not. Also, if you think an organization is less skilled in a particular area and you know another organization that can offer corresponding guidance, please let us know.
Q: Does anyone have specific advice for an organization seeking to train staff in inclusiveness-related efforts? Should we get consultants to get a good handle of what works?
Hunter: Yeah definitely. Staff have responded very well, particularly to consultants that talk about personal experience. Firsthand conversations go a very long way. There are a number of resources available out there regarding set up and training and protocol. However, direct conversations are very effective.
Leslye: In the case of people with English as a second language, I would encourage going online to look at their first language and learn the corresponding ways of respectfully addressing them.
Kit: We partner with teachers in the state, trying to make training as interactive as possible. We also have small discussion groups to introduce an element of peer-coaching and make things less lecture-based. Getting first-person accounts are essential in making the training a richer experience.
Debbi: The MIA has consulting sessions for its docents. The organization Vision Loss Resources sends us people who provide very hands-on consultation. They even have types of glasses that simulate different degrees of vision loss! As for ASL-interpreted tour training, we invite interpreters as well as people who are deaf. The one-on-one experience is important – fears just melt away when there is direct interaction.
Deb: At the Interact Center, there’s no formal training. To us, the best thing is to sit down and get used to artist with disabilities. You’ll find that it’s not so different from working with everybody else – it really boils down to a matter of mutual respect. If you want to know how you can help, just ask the person in question him or herself.