Approaching Access: Going Beyond ADA Guidelines

Accessibility is quickly becoming a hot-button topic in the arts industry, and for good reason. Representation of marginalized communities in popular culture has steadily increased over the last few years, and with it grow the demands for better inclusion in everyday scenarios.

As arts accessibility awareness grows, organizations have begun to put more thoughts into the programs they offer. Many theaters now offer ASL interpretations, open captions, assisted listening devices, and audio description. In recent years that offering has expanded to include touch tours, relaxed and sensory-friendly performances, and personal open caption devices. Additionally, there is more work being produced by members of the accessibility community, furthering representation in the cultural sector.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides guidelines for where arts organizations can begin with their access missions. Still, creating an inclusive experience for patrons should start with understanding the community’s needs. Using their perspectives as a starting point, organizations should lean on ADA guidelines to assist in achieving their access goals.

This guide is meant to give arts professionals an understanding of ADA guidelines as they apply to cultural organizations, and provide building blocks for starting dialogues with their communities on how to serve their access needs. It’s worth noting that while this guide focuses on access, engaging in conversations about what must be done for everyone to be included equitably applies not just to individuals with accessibility requirements, but to diverse and marginalized individuals across the board.

Understanding ADA guidelines

First, it’s important for organizations have someone on their team who has a firm grasp on ADA regulations. The ADA has specific requirements for physical buildings and online ticketing, and has suggestions for general website accessibility.

Passed in 1991 and revised in 2010, the ADA establishes minimum criteria for ensuring equal opportunities for people with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications. For cultural organizations, the ADA’s requirements for physical buildings and public facilities (i.e. parking) as well as ticketing (general procedures and online ticketing) are particularly important to understand.

A great starting point is the National Endowment for the Arts, Office of Accessibility. They have a quick fact sheet that provides an overview of accessibility standards for arts and cultural organizations.

Knowing the legislation is a good starting point, but creating an accessible experience should involve the organization’s full staff and the community it serves more so than checking regulatory boxes.

Accessibility roles across the team

An accessible experience encompasses the patron’s entire range of contact with the organization. Successful accessibility programs need advocacy from everyone in the business, and every department has a role to play:

Senior management needs to be able to champion the organization’s accessibility mission across departments.

Programming needs to bring in artists and events that are open to accessible adjustments.

Development needs to raise funds and coordinate sponsors for the events.

Marketing needs to get the schedule of events and details in front of potential patrons as early as possible, and understand where their new audiences are coming from.

House management needs to be sure their staff members are trained and prepared to handle audiences with accessible needs and accommodations.

Box office must also be trained, and managers must create inclusive pricing structures and policies that are in line with ADA guidelines and general best practice for access seating.

Artistic and production teams need to work together to adjust design elements and train performers on what to expect.

It takes the whole organization to make these programs run, and it takes everyone working together towards a common goal of including marginalized individuals to make these programs run well.

Access for your community

Every organization comes with its own unique set of patrons and culture. When building an access program, the most valuable resources at organizations’ disposal will be the patrons who are already booking for access performances. An open and honest discussion with these individuals about their experiences and challenges can go a long way in improving the overall quality of accommodations and in building solid customer relationships.

For organizations who are producing access programming for the first time, or those who don’t have patrons willing to engage what an exciting time! Know that the process to building and promoting access programming will be different than the usual order of things, but that it’s a remarkably rewarding result.

Marketing accessible programs

When building access programs, it’s not enough just to build an event and send out standard emails in hopes the target audiences will attend. In reaching out to patrons with access needs, remember that many individuals self-select themselves out of some general population experiences. Individuals with accessibility requirements often have to advocate for themselves with every transaction, and over time this can be both frustrating and traumatic. Many individuals choose instead to stay with the experiences they know and trust will be enjoyable.

Good accessible marketing endeavors to engage with potential new patrons in a way that demonstrates a commitment to integrity, empathy, and a willingness to listen and learn. A proven track record of excellent customer experience will help show potential patrons that access programming is not simply about ticking a box to the organization, but about working toward a better cultural community for everyone.

As previously mentioned, a successful access program relies on all aspects of an organization, and that includes the hiring process. Hiring individuals outside of the usual pool of applicants (meaning applicants with a disability, from a different socio-economic or educational background, etc.) will strengthen the organization from the inside-out. A wider array of perspectives on the back end bolsters the organization’s ability to support more diverse audiences. Additionally, when audiences come to the venue, having staff that they can identify with helps to assuage any feelings of “otherness” they might experience.

Types of Accessible Programming

After uniting the staff and consulting the community, an organization should have a road map to how it can go about building accessibility. The approach to building that will be different for every organization. Here are the building blocks to accessible programming that organizations might build on and how they fit into the accessible experience, both in the venue and in the online booking path.

Related reading: How to Tell Your Customers About Your Access Performances

Access programming is only ever as strong as the infrastructure built to support it. Excellent programs are made better when an organization collectively agrees on their importance from the top down. In deciding how an organization would like to approach access, their leaders should lean heavily on the experiences and perspectives of their current patrons with access requirements. Seek to learn from them, and listen to what they say works or what needs improvement. Cast nets far and wide to reach patrons who would enjoy the organization’s programming, but be strategic about what other organizations can help spread the word.

The ADA’s guidelines are a good starting point, but a thriving access program is the result of going above and beyond the regulations. At their heart, access programs are about breaking down the barriers to entry and welcoming new audiences into a venue. Ensuring new audiences have excellent and inclusive experiences is an important factor in obtaining repeat business and spreading positive word-of-mouth reviews.

Making a commitment to creating a fully accessible organization, in terms of content, infrastructure, and community has the potential to create a ripple effect that welcomes new and diverse audiences into arts spaces. These new audience members bring with them not just the potential for new streams of revenue, but also the possibility for a better organization and community as a whole.


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