An in-depth look at the accessibility of the arts and art spaces

Tuesday, April 3, 2018 - 12:22pm

Nyle DiMarco

Nyle DiMarco Buy this photo
Courtesy of Nyle DiMarco

For people with disabilities, engaging in the arts can be a frustrating and isolating experience. Around the world, countless theaters, museums and concert halls lack the proper accommodations necessary to be accessible to people with disabilities. In the last half-century, the global disability rights movement has made significant strides in securing the rights of people with disabilities to lead full, independent lives. Despite this progress, however, there’s still work to be done. Deaf actor and model Nyle DiMarco recently reminded people of this after a series of his tweets spurred controversy surrounding AMC Theaters’ subpar closed-captioning system for deaf and hard-of-hearing moviegoers.

“I’m really disappointed,” DiMarco tweeted. “Theaters are basically for all the able-bodied people.” DiMarco made note of the faulty closed-captioning devices used at AMC theaters, which are often prone to inaccuracies and skipping lines. Stories like DiMarco’s have led to an influx of pressure on movie theaters to upgrade their equipment or offer more frequent showings with on-screen closed captioning. The frustrations of DiMarco and other deaf moviegoers, however, are only a symptom of a greater problem affecting the arts: Accessibility for people with disabilities is often not taken into account.

It is the privilege of able-bodied people to not have to worry about how they’ll be able to get up a flight of stairs, navigate a crowded museum or enjoy the show they’re trying to attend. It stands to reason, then, that this lack of accessibility comes more from ignorance than anything else. The unique needs of people with disabilities may seldom be thought of in the corporate boardrooms that make decisions which impact accessibility at arts-related venues. It’s a problem that’s worsened by the lack of exposure to invisible disabilities. Some forms of autism, for example, may make it difficult for people to be in crowded areas or deal with sudden loud noises, while long restroom lines may be prohibitive for individuals with Crohn’s Disease.

It is absolutely crucial that the arts be accessible for all people, and the current lack of accessibility is unacceptable. Art isn’t just entertainment; it’s a form of interpersonal communication meant to transcend barriers of language, race and national origin. It highlights how we are far more similar than different. If art venues aren’t doing everything feasibly within their power to ensure that the arts can be accessed and enjoyed by all people, then they are doing an active disservice to the advancement of the arts as a whole. Film, music and other mediums occupy a massive portion of our collective societal attention, and the right of people with disabilities to enjoy art and partake in these social phenomena is instrumental to their ability to lead normal, fulfilling and independent lives.

Luckily, there are art institutions and venues striving to do it right. In 2014, English National Ballet turned their sights toward creating accessible children’s media. The company decided to put on their own adaptation of the ballet “Coppélia”. The ballet tells the story of Doctor Coppélius, a cantankerous old inventor who builds a life-sized dancing automaton. The company’s production, titled “My First Coppélia”, was intended to be a simplified version of the classic 1870 ballet, complete with numerous accessibility measures to ensure all children would be able to enjoy the show. Striving to make the show accessible to children with autism, the company scrutinized their lighting, sound effects and narrative. They reworked the dancing role of Doctor Coppélius into an on-stage narrator and brought a British Sign Language consultant on board to teach the dancers and narrator key signs to aid deaf and hard-of-hearing children. The production also incorporated a digital companion that used Widgit symbols, an alternative form of communication used by those with certain communicative impairments. “My First Coppélia” was the first in a whole series of modified ballets, titled “My First Inclusive Ballet.”

French art museum The Louvre has also taken notable steps to enhance museum accessibility. The museum is housed in what was once the Louvre Palace, originally built in the 12th and 13th centuries by King Philip II, which is not exactly what comes to mind when you think of accessible structures. Nevertheless, the museum has taken extraordinary measures to ensure accessibility for all guests, including special tours for guests with mobility impairments. The Louvre reports these tours serve roughly 10,000 guests per year. In 1995, the museum installed the Tactile Gallery, a permanent exhibit for the visually impaired in which the museum’s golden rule — do not touch — is encouraged to be broken. “Some people run their hands over the works, and some even knock on them to understand the material of which they're made,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in a proflie of Cyrille Gouyette, the co-head of the gallery. In the piece Gouyette said: “There’s really a way to learn how to touch, with habits to learn.” The gallery contains exact replicas of original works and is one of a growing number of touch galleries and tours found in museums around the world.

In comparison to many of the innovative accessibility advancements being throughout the world, accessibility in art spaces at the University of Michigan seems to be a mixed bag. The University Musical Society, for example, organizes musical performances in various venues across campus, including Hill Auditorium, the Power Center for Performing Arts and Rackham Auditorium. UMS offers a noted array of accessibility measures in the venues it uses; these include programs in large print and braille, assistive listening devices, and American Sign Language interpretation available with advance notice.

At other University institutions, such as the University of Michigan Museum of Art, accessibility seems to typically meet only the bare minimum. All of the museum’s exhibits are wheelchair accessible, and wheelchairs are available upon request. The museum’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan states American Sign Language interpretation is available, but such a service isn’t directly advertised anywhere on the museum’s website.

To its credit, the museum does have occasional programs featuring increased accessibility, such as the “My Turn” Special ASD Access Hours, which has been held once a year for the last two years. The program is intended for families with children affected by Autism spectrum disorder and features “sensory reducing accessories and a quiet area with tactile toys.” While these efforts are a step in the right direction, it’s not enough for an institution to be inclusive and accessible for one day a year. Greater accessibility standards should be the norm, not a special occasion. Until these accessibility measures are applied on a more consistent and permanent scale, it’s hard to say the University’s art spaces are accomplishing anything more than meeting the bare minimum of accessibility standards.

It’s unlikely that all art spaces will ever be completely accessible to all people, but it’s important that any institution committed to the advancement of the arts also be on the forefront of innovative accessibility measures. This is because art is, at its core, meant to be a documentation of the human experience — to leave anyone out is to detract from that fundamental goal. These ongoing innovations in accessibility of art spaces form the cornerstone of an ongoing effort to make the arts available to everyone, regardless of race, religion, background or disability. 

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