The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 set the bar for equitable physical access to facilities and public accommodations. Bathrooms are handicap accessible, buildings have elevators, stairs have handrails, Braille signage is posted, doorways are wide enough for wheelchairs, toilets have grab bars and so on
What the ADA requirement doesn’t mandate is a mindset of “welcome to this building”. One of the lovely things about CounterPulse is that in addition to having a building that is ADA compliant, there is, among the staff, volunteers, and performers a genuine attitude of “welcome” to anyone that walks through the door . The CounterPulse and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts presentation of The Way You Look (at me) Tonight, by Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis, in addition to being awesome, provided extraordinary support for audience members with special needs:visual, hearing, and physical impairments.
This awesome support (by Jess and Claire) for audience with special needs, is influenced by a genuine desire to reach as many people as possible through their art, first hand experience. Claire has a physical disability, educating her audience about disabilities, is embedded in her artistic practice. Europe has a higher standard of meeting differently abled audience members needs, than is generally found in the USA.
So exactly what type of support did The Way You Look (at me) Tonight, provide that was so outstanding? Well, in addition to a welcoming attitude, there were large print and braille printed programs available for people with visual impairments, there was a wireless personal audio system for audience who have hearing impairments. This system actually actually belongs to The Way You Look (at me) Tonight, because it is so useful, and many venues where they perform are not similarly equipped, (there is a lot of talking, in the piece). Likewise, in respect of the importance of the dialogue there was an American Sign Language Interpreter present during the Friday night performances and the post show discussions. The ASL Interpreter was more integrated in the performance in terms of placement in the space, than you see in public meetings where the Interpreter is off to the side. And of note, The Way You Look (at me) Tonight took the lead in providing a written guide of best practices, educating front of house staff / volunteers on how to better engage differently abled audience members.
The staging for the show, included about 14 seats placed onstage with the performers. This is another level of accessibility to a performance for audience regardless of physical ability. It was great to see wheelchairs onstage taking advantage of the unique viewing experience. The more integrated and visible differently abled people are in the public realm, the more normalized differently abled become.
CounterPulse is quick to pick up on innovation that is appropriate to their mission. The Way You Look (at me) Tonight has been a great opportunity for the staff to learn about, and try out better methods of supporting audience members who are differently abled. As a result, some CounterPulse changes you can expect to see in the future on our website, range from videos with pertinent information delivered in ASL, videos of the walk from public transport stops to the CounterPulse front door, and importantly, a more informed staff in regards to welcoming and supporting differently abled audience. If you have any suggestions on how CounterPulse could better serve differently abled audience members, we would love to hear it. Send those excellent ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. After all, it’s really amazing how much better the meal tastes when there is a seat at the table for everyone.
Rick Darnell is the CounterPulse Community Engagement Associate. He is a practicing artist, and long time Tenderloin resident. Rick is the Project Coordinator for TAll, the Tenderloin Art Lending Library.