If there is one good thing that can come from this year, it might be that we have a chance to dramatically reset our way of doing things.
One of the opportunities we have now as we look ahead to the future is in the realm of accessibility.
If you have never thought about accessibility before, you likely will in the future. Today, 26% of people have some kind of disability, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says, and that number is expected to increase with the aging of the baby boomer generation.
As we look to reopen our institutions and businesses in the future, will we reopen them in a way that makes them more inclusive or go back to business as usual?
Elizabeth Ralston, the founder of the Seattle Cultural Accessibility Consortium, an organization founded in 2018 to increase accessibility in the arts community, wants us to rebuild with inclusion in mind.
Her organization supports arts groups in becoming more accessible through professional development and training, workshops and a website with resources and technical assistance.
Accessibility is not just Ralston’s professional mission, it’s deeply personal as well.
A lifelong avid arts enthusiast and a person who is deaf, Ralston often found herself unable to fully participate in the arts she loved. Ralston reads lips and does not speak American Sign Language (ASL), so she needed captions for films and a script for plays to understand the dialogue. But captions were often not available and she would often be scolded by staff for using the pen light she needed to read scripts in the theater.
The pandemic posed additional challenges as a lip reader, Ralston said. “Out and about, it has been difficult […] trying to communicate with people who have face coverings and having to explain why they need to remove their face covering (and doing social distancing at the same time),” she said.
One of the core principles of accessibility is that universal design is better for everyone. Universal design is the idea that making facilities, products and systems with a wide range of users in mind, helps not just people with disabilities, but all people. For example, curb cuts on sidewalks designed to help wheelchair users get around also benefit people with strollers and bike riders as well.
Instead of thinking of accessibility as something you do at the end of a planning process for an event or a facility, you should start with accessibility at the beginning.
One of Seattle Cultural Accessibility Consortium’s most recent projects is the “Opening Doors” podcast. The podcast, hosted by Ralston, addresses accessibility in the arts and beyond. Its first season focuses on the intersecting experiences of people of color with disabilities.
One of the podcast guests, Troy Coalman, is a community leader, fundraiser and disability advocate. Coalman, who is legally blind, said in the podcast one of the key things to keep in mind is that disability is complex and each person is different.
“There’s a spectrum,” Coalman said. “There isn’t one singular answer. You have to have a variety of touch points.” For instance, he added, no two people who are blind or two people who are deaf share the same abilities, “so you have to have a variety of solutions available.”
To that end, while it has been a longtime goal for many disability advocates to have an online streaming option for events to allow greater accessibility, streaming alone doesn’t make events inherently accessible.
Knowing how to make online events more accessible was the subject of a workshop the consortium led in May called “Connecting Everyone: Accessible Virtual Arts Programs” during the first few months of the pandemic.
One “Connecting Everyone” workshop panelist, actor Mickey Rowe, was the founding artistic director of the National Disability Theatre and was groundbreaking as an autistic actor playing an autistic character in a professional performance setting. He described disability during the panel as “really the only equal opportunity minority group. Anyone can join our prestigious club at any time and will, should they be lucky enough to live long enough, right?”
Rowe said during the panel, “This pandemic came up so unexpectedly and all of a sudden you all have to stay home just like disabled folks have for much of their lives, right? So suddenly you all care about virtual programming just like the disability community has been asking for for a long time.
“So what I would say is, really think about disability on a personal level. And when things open back up, don’t just do it for the disability community. Do it for you. Universal accessibility is only going to help you and your future self. And the best way to do that is by involving adults with disabilities from the beginning.”