By Elena SV Flys
Eastern Michigan University
Accessibility Design as part of the Arts Curriculum
This short paper highlights the contradiction of the arts seeking social inclusion and justice but still being inaccessible to many stakeholders, due to the lack of access services. When accessibility is mentioned, usually people think exclusively of physical or architectural barriers, disregarding the importance of communication barriers, which are equally significant. This paper discusses the learning and implementation process of accessibility in the arts administration curriculum and how educators can address issues of social justice by adopting strategies for inclusion and access in their courses. Current and future artists and producers not only need to be aware of these needs, but also of their own role in reaching these audiences. I will also describe the integration of accessibility in the arts administration curriculum and as another design area at EMU’s Theatre. The real-life experiences can serve to illustrate the challenges and benefits of integrating accessibility from a practical perspective. I hypothesize that by incorporating accessibility initiatives into Art curriculums at colleges, so that future creators will learn to consider accessibility as one of the core values of design of any artistic production.
What does current accessibility look like?
As stated in my earlier research (SV FLYS, 2018), although regulations such as ADA can be considered a collective solution, they all have limitations. For example, ADA requires and encourages organizations to provide aids as long as it doesn’t result in “undue burden”. Thus, the legal platform is not able to guarantee inclusion. In addition, organizations that can financially offer these access services tend to have the limitation of establishing a connection between the third parties (who provide access services such as audio description) with the director of the play or theatre companies. Therefore, the goal of Universal Design—where accessibility is conceived from the show’s inception—is impossible.
Consequently, I have asked myself as a practitioner and a scholar arts administrator:
- What can arts administrators do to consider accessibility to the arts from the very beginning of the production process?
- What tools and resources can we develop to include this approach of universal design into our classes?
- How can this initiative assure that the arts will be fully accessible and inclusive to everyone?
In order to answer these questions, I introduce ways to include accessibility in the university setting. For each method I will provide some examples and processes to embed inclusivity and access. I have narrowed the focus into three sections:
- Incorporating topics of accessibility into the current courses
- Teaching accessibility and accessibility design as a course
- Including accessibility design and development into artistic productions
Incorporating topics of accessibility into the current courses
Accessibility should be taught in the area of arts administration because our students will be involved with every step of an organization’s mission and audience engagement. As arts administrators we determine our internal and external policies that may or may not promote an inclusive environment. Thus, access and inclusion are topics that can very well be contained within our courses.
For example, in a class of Arts Administration Principles & Practices, topics of access and inclusion can be embedded in areas of human resources, financial planning, programming and marketing. In the area of human resources the professor could include elements of how to fight discrimination in employment, introducing Title I and II of ADA, which talk about equal employment opportunities. Students could discuss job descriptions and where to post them, how to assure equal access to the information (job application procedures), and how to talk about work placement accommodations. On a related note, arts administrators must be able to deal with the organization’s finances, which means not only maintaining, monitoring and communicating the financial reality of the organization but also explaining and including budget lines that will provide accessibility and inclusivity in their overall activities and programs. For this purpose, the professor could include an activity that deals with several organization’s budgets and analyze whether access has been incorporated or not and which elements could be included. Another example is programming and the concept of effective communication. As mentioned before, access to the building does not guarantee equal access to everyone. Arts organizations must deliberately decide whether they want their programs to be fully accessible or not. For this purpose, the professor could introduce Title III of ADA and explain to students the different access services that an arts organization could provide to their audience.
With this is mind, this topic can also be raised in a multitude of other courses, such as in a Marketing course, where professors could discuss different platforms and mediums used to promote their programs and the accessibility available. This would allow students to review and think about ways in which promotion strategies can increase inclusion instead of exclusion. Another interesting topic would be to teach students how to advertise the welcoming environment created by the organization thanks to the access services. Equal access and inclusion are also topics that can be built-in into a Cultural Policy course. When talking about access to culture, the professor could include the challenges that the disabled community goes through to access different art forms as audience members and also as artists. Some excellent resources are: Kuppers, 2014; Sandhal, 2005; Kleege, 2018 and Hadley, 2015. In a Fundraising course, for example, most of the grants in the US require the organization to explain their ADA compliance and their plans to reach out to broader communities. This would give the professor the chance to include this necessary skill in students’ professional training.
For all these courses, I would recommend that before doing so the professor includes some demographic information from the area showing data from people with disabilities and aging adults. This would not only provide with the necessary context for students to understand the percentage of population that potentially they would be excluding from their programs, but it also gives the professor a chance to explain the benefits of access services for all audience members.
Teaching accessibility design as a course
Another option, especially for arts administrators that are entrepreneurs and want to create their own company, is to have a specific class devoted to accessibility design. I taught this class in 2019 and it was very interesting for the students. For example, one graduate student in their evaluation stated, “the course information is extremely relevant and important” and an undergraduate student said “I loved the work we did. Very hands on, and I can update my resume because of this class!” The contents of the course were introduced via scholarly work, including my own research, as well as through guest speakers and guidelines created by the Kennedy Center (Design for Accessibility). The course covered the following areas: disability models, ADA, Universal Design principles, disabled communities, building access and signage, audio description, tactile displays, scents and taste (touchable paintings, touch tours, etc.), captions, ASL, sensory friendly productions and exhibits, attending a disability studies conference and a final project.
For each topic I introduced the students to the subsequent elements: community members that use each access service and potential uses for other audience members, demographic data, regulation provided by ADA in regards to each service, other related access services that enhance effective communication (e.g. braille, large printed programs), brief history of the access service discussed, definition of the access service and different schools or ways to include them in the arts (e.g. objective audio description vs auter description; Szarkowska, 2013), ways in which the access service is provided (e.g. open or closed captions), requirements and implications for the implementation of the access service (e.g. budget, staff training, promotion), and principles of creating/designing each tool. For each of the areas, we had a practicum and a guest speaker from the community. For the practicum, I had three different projects tied to a cultural organization. With my advice and supervision, students developed the audio description for an art exhibit, multisensory displays for a theatre production, the captions for a concert and the social narratives for all events. Students had a hands-on activity that would help them understand the concepts and the important work behind accessibility and also helped cultural organizations such as Riverside Arts Center have a welcoming art exhibits and concerts for all. As guest speakers, we invited community members to talk about the challenges of attending art events, the benefits and best practices for access services, and the importance of having a community advisory committee to give feedback.
Including accessibility design and development:
Lastly, the implementation of accessibility in the production process. Accessibility should be another design element and not an afterthought component to any artistic production or exhibition. As previously mentioned, this section is based on the work that I developed at EMU in 2018-2020. It was vital for me to have the support of peers and students in accomplishing these strategies and overcoming the learning curve.
The initial point is to follow those principles of universal design that state that accessibility should be initiated from the beginning of the creative process and not afterwards, and that the creator, or in this case the director of the production, should be involved in the process. Therefore, the accessibility designer follows the artistic concept of the director, and matches the rest of their design (Udo and Fels, 2010). Thus, the accessibility designer combines all sensorial elements to provide patrons with disabilities an understanding of the play in terms of characters, set and costume designs, movement and sounds with the goal of engaging them in the experience.
The accessibility designer will search for ways to engage accessibility without necessarily altering the program. The designer will work with conventional tools such as audio description, captioning, ASL, and designated quiet areas, integrating them as much as possible with the artistic concept of the play (for example designing the script of audio description from the perspective of one character). The accessibility designer will also work with non-conventional tools which appeal to other senses besides the visual and auditory such as touch tours, or the inclusion of taste or smell. As Udo and Fels (2009) stated, considering the theatrical medium in non-traditional ways can also help increase accessibility, for example re-thinking the way of using lights or costumes (Udo and Fels, 2009, p. 181). These experiences can be used to develop additional perceptions, using other senses besides sight and sound which can both enhance the theatrical experience while complementing traditional sensorial reception. Thus the access tools design not only may improve the experience of the audience with disabilities, but also of those without.
We had students take the following roles to assist and receive training: assistant to accessibility designer (training a future student to design the accessibility of another show), assistant stage manager for accessibility (training the student that becomes the liaison between the stage manager’s team and the accessibility crew), and 5 crew members (one devoted to the audio description script, another to the captions, one for sensory friendly performances, another for lobby displays, and the last one in charge of communication, community engagement, and the advisory committee). The training from four different productions and the feedback obtained from the advisory committee and the overall audience have helped students acknowledge the importance of access and inclusion and have encouraged the use of these topics in further courses/conversations and in the practical settings. Moreover, we were able to create a practical handbook for future performances and institutions to strengthen their learning and to create accessible shows.
In conclusion, the steps previously explained have helped me as a professional and as a scholar to engage our future creators in what is a still evolving field in the arts. The arts cannot claim to address social inclusion and justice if a significant minority is forgotten. Thus, given the limitations of legislation in guaranteeing inclusion and access, it becomes the role of educators to train students in such areas to shape the future of the arts and its policy-making. This will assure that everyone can fully access the arts in content, and not just the building.
Questions for further discussion
– How can we include these topics in more of our courses?
– What materials would we need to create?
– Should DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) topics have their own course or be embedded into every course?
HADLEY, B. (2015). Participation, Politics and Provocations: People with Disabilities as Non-Conciliatory Audiences. Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 12 (1), 154–174.
KLEEGE, G. (2018). More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art. New York: Oxford University Press.
KUPPERS, P. (2014). Studying Disability Arts and Culture: An Introduction. New York: Palgrave.
SANDHAL, C., AUSLANDER, P. (eds) (2005). Bodies in Commotion: Disability and Performance. Michigan: University Michigan Press.
SV FLYS, E. (2018). ADA and Communication: Accessibility in Theatre. CultureWork, 22.1
SZARKOWSKA, A. (2013). Auteur Description: From the Director’s Creative Vision to Audio Description. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 107 (5), 383-388.
UDO, J. P. and FELS, D. I. (2009). Suit the Action to the Word, the Word to the Action: An Unconventional Approach to Describing Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Visual Impairment and Blindness, 103 (3), 178–183.
UDO, J. P. and FELS, D. I. (2010). The Rogue Poster-Children of Universal Design: Closed Captioning and Audio Description. Journal of Engineering Design, 21 (2–3), 207–221.
Dr. SV Flys is an Assistant Professor in Arts & Entertainment Management (Arts Administration) at EMU. Her research focuses on accessibility, audience reception, social integration and community building. She is interested in the questions of how we reach new audiences, how we make the arts accessible for all, and how this further accessibility might encourage social integration. Her belief is that social issues, such as embracing diversity or dealing with economic and environmental crises can be addressed through the arts, fostering community development. Her most recent publication “Using Thermography to Study Audience Engagement during Theatre Performances” was published in AJAM this past April.
Photo: Elena SV Flys Photo by Laura SV Flys
Header picture: Tactile Tour of Still Life with Iris. Photo by Wallace Bridges.