This piece is one in a series on disability and theatre.
Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but many who work in the theatre would agree that there is much left to do before even the nation’s largest venues can be called truly accessible. This work has both a long and recent history. In 2018, Katherine Fritz wrote for American Theatre about the need for accessibility policies in American theatre spaces, and in 2010, the National Endowment for the Arts’ Office of Accessibility released a primer on the Department of Justice’s ADA changes at the time of a major update to the legislation.
Much of that change, and indeed much of the act as it pertains to theatre, is about space and audience requirements: numbers of required captioned performances, updates to the act’s expectations for accessible design, and a section dedicated to ticketing requirements all being examples. But this focus on audience needs to expand to include access for those onstage and behind the scenes. Despite the preponderance of effort and resources going toward ticket-buying patrons rather than those making the art, the hope of disabled theatre workers is that the ADA can move from the page and to the stage—from a set of rules and regulations to a starting point for increased inclusion in all areas of American theatre.
Jason Dorwart (he/him) is a visiting professor of theatre and disability studies at Oberlin College and a soon-to-be faculty member at Hong Kong Baptist University. He said the historical context of the ADA is important to consider when we look at the current concerns facing the industry when it comes to accessibility. “The ADA has greatly changed access to theatre for audiences, but the application of this to people onstage is a little more difficult,” Dorwart acknowledged.
Dorwart said that his research and lived experience reveals an industry that has to reckon with accessibility in a multitude of ways, including physical space and casting. But he has found that theatres are often asking the wrong question when it comes to the act and its provisions.
“I think one of the most difficult things is that access is often an afterthought,” he said. “Like, ‘Okay, we want the theatre. Now, what do we need to do to make it compliant?’ I think we need to turn our thinking around, and instead of, ‘How do we make this theatre compliant?,’ the question is, ‘What is a compliant theatre?’ It should be a design consideration, not a remodeling consideration.”
What Dorwart and other artists who spoke to American Theatre for this story continue to bring forward is that the ADA is an act that is showing its age and its limits. As arts administrator and author Howard Sherman asked in his 2016 essay for HowlRound, “Is the ADA a tool that people with disabilities may need to be reminded to use (dare I say wield) in conjunction with the arts? Perhaps it is. But there’s no reason why theatres can’t proactively review and bring themselves into compliance with it. If equity, diversity, and inclusion are truly goals for the field, accessibility should be as well. And not just because it’s the law.”
The ADA was an intersectional struggle for Americans looking to secure their rights. Since being signed into law by George H.W. Bush, after a drawn-out political campaign that involved many disabled people leaving their wheelchairs to symbolically crawl the steps of the Capitol, it has been a landmark law in North America for those with disabilities. The act has often been criticized, though—as has previous legislation, like section 504, which governs the rights of disabled people related to those entities that receive federal education funding—because of the loopholes it provides for businesses to neglect accessibility if such efforts constitute an “undue hardship.” Many also feel the act has too malleable a definition of what a “reasonable accommodation” is.
In many ways, disability access and disabled artists, like the Ford Foundation’s Disability Futures Fellows, represent an overlooked tradition in contemporary American life. The work of these artists and activists has shaped how theatre and the wider world sees disabled artists, and in tandem this impacts what accessibility looks like in the arts.
Ryan J. Haddad (he/him) is one of the Ford Fellows. He said that the work of the industry is to try to think from a human-centered point of view, rather than seeing access as a checklist. “Even if you check every box, it doesn’t mean that my ability to be in your space and function in your space is conducive to my needs or my practice,” he said.
Haddad, an actor and playwright, said that learning what accessibility means in the theatre industry was a steep curve for him.
“I, at the beginning of my career, assumed that if they were bringing me, knowing that I was a performer with a walker who’s doing a solo show—whether it was in a one-night festival, or at a major university, or at a major regional theatre—that people would know that they needed to plan for access. And I learned that is not always the case, that you have to actually say it, you have to spell it out, even if it seems so obvious to you.”
The ADA is often thought of in terms of physical accessibility for wheelchair users, with a heavy focus on audience access. But it’s also a key piece of legislation for Deaf theatre workers. Alexandria Wailes (she/her) is a Deaf director, actor, choreographer, dancer, director of Artistic Sign Language, and teaching artist. She said that implementation of the act in many creative spaces “has become a checklist of what is or isn’t provided—oft times at the bare minimum.” She said that this checkbox mentality leads to a lot more questions than it does answers when she works to be part of a space like a rehearsal hall.
“As a Deaf performer, if I want to maintain being on top of my craft by taking acting classes, who pays for the cost of qualified interpreters in a space already not designed for me?” Wailes wondered. “The school providing the classes? Myself, as an artist? Are the interpreters expected to work pro bono? Do I have a say in who my interpreter(s) can and should be, and can this be planned better so we are not dealing with ‘after the fact’ and rush jobs?”
She says that the ADA could better serve Deaf performers by “mandating qualified consultants with lived experiences to enter the space and support the company to better prepare for welcoming Deaf and disabled artists into their spaces.”
One of the companies she said provided equitable access was New York’s Public Theater, where Wailes appeared in a 2019 revival of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.
“A couple of months before rehearsals, I was invited to talk with their staff to figure out the best way to navigate the rehearsal process with interpreters in the room, and then, for eventual paying audiences, what would be best practices for interpreted performances,” Wailes recalled. “They planned ahead and were able to accommodate most if not all requests.”
One organization that supported this effort was New York’s Hands On, an ASL interpretation support company that has been working with theatres since 1982. Beth Prevor (she/her), Hands On’s executive director, said that their work is about making sure Deaf artists and audience members don’t have to shoulder the load of ensuring their access needs. “We wanted to make sure that Alexandria was there as a performer, so that interpreting was not necessarily her responsibility.”
Prevor’s small organization was seeing a large uptick in interpreted performances pre-pandemic. She thinks this may be because theatres have begun to understand that when their colleagues in other spaces decide to have interpretive services, there’s an expectation that they keep up.
“I don’t want to say it’s competition, but, you know, the Public was [interpreting] every show, Roundabout was doing every show, and these are kind of big names, in terms of nonprofit theatres in New York. So it’s like, ‘Well, they’re doing it, maybe we have to do it.’”
In terms of the ADA, Prevor said she can’t recall a time when she’s started a conversation about access by referencing the law. Rather, the partners she works with do it because they recognize the access needs of those they make theatre for and with. She attributed this to their nonprofit status—that such organizations “have a mission, and have goals, and have more of a community focus to them. So this is just another community theatres want to serve.”
Minnesota-based writer and performer Katie Hae Leo (she/her) believes that revisions to the ADA could make a significant change in the creative ecology and the way institutions nationwide provide access. “The ADA is a really important document, but certainly needs to be reexamined, just like any law that is that old,” said Leo. She pointed to the changing needs of artists due to the pandemic as an example of where reimagined legislation could make a significant difference for disabled artists working today.
“I think that the pandemic and this moment that we’re in has just reinforced in showing, again, the vulnerabilities of disabled citizens,” Leo said. “It’s provided this incredible opportunity on one hand to create more access to disabled artists, for disabled artists and for disabled audience members to engage with art. But I think that unless we can codify some of those changes, and make sure that they become part of, at the very least best practices and at the best, law—it would be a real shame to lose that opportunity.”
The ADA is a piece, albeit an important piece, of making that happen for America’s disabled artists, but to continue to turn the ADA from words on a page into actionable accessibility will take sustained work from industry partners. Michael K. Maag (he/him) is the resident lighting designer at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which he said has been extraordinarily accommodating of his wheelchair use since an accident in 2003.
“I was able to instigate work patterns for tech, where they removed some seats from the middle of the house so I can get to the lighting grid,” said Maag. But even with their “willingness and flexibility,” there are still two out of the three spaces at OSF “where I can’t get to the lighting booth. It’s a disappointment to me, but they’re older buildings from a time when they weren’t thinking about this, and we’ve come up with workarounds.”
Calling the ADA the “absolute minimum you can do to avoid looking like a jerk,” Maag said that going forward he wants to encourage architects, design consultants, and production managers to get beyond binary thinking about disabled vs. non-disabled.
“I was presenting at the NATEAC conference a couple of years ago and talking to some architects about wheelchair access to the grid, and they couldn’t imagine how that would be possible,” Maag recalled. He demonstrated to them that despite his wheelchair, he was still capable of lifting, pulling, and adjusting various equipment. “Not every person in a wheelchair can do that, but then neither can every able-bodied person. So don’t think of access as an on or an off. We need to get beyond that thinking. There’s a whole spectrum of ability.”
Ultimately, Maag said, this shouldn’t be a huge challenge for theatre workers. “An inventive attitude is the definition of theatre. We’ve been stealing from other industries and using their innovations since the beginning of time. That’s the disabled mindset: coming up with creative solutions when we have an impediment or an obstacle. We’ve found that when we include others, things get better for all, and the art gets better too.”
John Loeppky (he/him) is a disabled freelance journalist and theatre artist living in Regina
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