ArtsNow invites members of the Triangle arts community to contribute guest blog posts. If you are interested in writing a post about a Triangle arts organization or event, please contact us.
Jamie Katz Court is the communications and programs manager for PineCone.
“I am an accessibility advocate.” This phrase was recited, in unison, by more than 400 people from around the world — including myself and 14 other people from Wake County — in a hotel ballroom earlier this month to kick off the Kennedy Center’s 2015 Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability Conference in Arlington, VA.
Earlier this year, the Office of Raleigh Arts, which operates under the City of Raleigh’s Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Resources department, teamed up with the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County to offer an opportunity for representatives from local arts organizations to attend the 2015 conference. We received a grant to attend in exchange for agreeing to be part of a year-long learning community with our local cohort to help all of us learn with and from each other about how to make our programming more accessible to people with disabilities in our community.
Representatives from Arts Access, Artspace, Arts Together, CAM Raleigh, Cary Visual Art, PineCone, Raleigh Little Theatre, Sertoma Art Center, Visual Art Exchange, the City of Raleigh’s city manager’s office, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, the Office of Raleigh Arts, and the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County all attended.
In one powerful session, presenters showed videos (closed captioned, of course) of people they served explaining why the services mattered to them. In more than one instance, the issue of civil rights came up. Access to the information being conveyed in a play, for instance, shouldn’t be restricted to only those people who can hear. Thanks to services like American Sign Language interpretation and open captioning (think subtitles), not only can people who can’t hear a show still know what’s going on, but also they can attend events with their families and friends.
Think about that for a minute: people with disabilities have family members and friends who do not have disabilities, and those people attend events. By providing accommodations, we’re doing so much more than complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which turns 25 this year. We’re providing human beings with opportunities to feel like part of their families, part of their communities. Having a disability can be a very isolating experience, so bringing people together and building communities is a major selling point for arts organizations large and small.
The other theme that seemed to tie so many sessions together was the idea of building relationships with and really listening to community members who use accessibility services. It may sound obvious, but different people have different needs, regardless of ability (or disability). Listening to what people need or want, giving people options, asking how you can help, being respectful and honoring the choices people make to accept help, or not, and working to provide people with as much autonomy as possible are things we can only do if we can have a conversation with people who want to be part of our programs. The people with disabilities we met at the conference, regardless of ability, all wanted to be able to do as much for themselves as they could: from opening doors to deciding whether to take the stairs or the elevator.
I am excited to continue this work with the Raleigh cohort this year and learn new things to help our organizations and others become even more accessible and welcoming, and I invite others to start a conversation with us. If you have a question or a need that we’re not accommodating, please tell us and help us continue to learn together and serve our entire community better.