Recently, Arts Learning Community for Universal Access participants shared their experiences from the past year as they gained understanding about issues affecting people with disabilities and made strides toward universal access.
This collective, funded in part by the City of Raleigh Arts Commission and the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County, kicked off its program in August 2015 with the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) Conference hosted by the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. From there, the collective began to form goals and objectives for the year ahead. Monthly meetings became a place for learning community members to share ideas and report on progress made as improvements and goals within their individual organizations started to take shape.
Learning community members initiated large and small scale improvements over the course of the last year within their organizations as they attempted to increase accessibility. Several organizations, including Artspace and Visual Art Exchange, improved wayfinding signage in their spaces. Arts Together created large print playbills. Many organizations found that a relatively inexpensive change, such as improving signage, has made a meaningful impact for many low vision patrons of these art venues as well as generally making it easier for all people to get around a particular venue.
At Sertoma Arts Center, the welcome desk was not wheelchair accessible (or welcoming) with its high counter that left staff unable to see many people who approached them. A new desk with a lower counter, placed in a more strategic area of the lobby, benefited patrons and staff at Sertoma. To be sure, universal access has wide reaching benefits. As Meg Revelle of Arts Together said, “we try to identify the barriers and focus on what we can do to enhance the experience for everyone.” Many times, learning community members found that lifting barriers improved the experience of the arts for the whole community.
Some of the organizations took on large-scale accessibility improvements as well. Artspace removed a wall to make a gallery more accessible. Raleigh Little Theatre installed a hearing loop so that hearing aid wearers can plug directly into the sound system, resulting in better quality sound than most theatergoers could experience.
In addition to making physical onsite improvements, many organizations improved communication about their accessibility policies and practices as a result of the learning community. Artspace, PineCone and Visual Art Exchange all added more information to their web sites so that patrons in need of accommodations could know what to expect when they arrive at a particular venue or special event. And perhaps more importantly, patrons could find out who to contact with accessibility questions during one of those events, like SparkCon.
Catherine Howard, of Cary Visual Art, and Gab Smith, of CAM Raleigh, both spoke about a larger communicative effort with the community about arts and accessibility. According to Howard, “we made a programmatic shift toward accessibility.” She went on to describe ways that Cary Visual Art had begun thinking about accessibility in all aspects of their programming decisions from creating a physical gallery space (in addition to their outdoor sculptures spread throughout Cary), changing their mission statement to incorporate accessibility, creating tours renamed “guided tours” instead of “walking tours,” and generally thinking about ways to be present and available for the community as a whole.
Gab Smith also emphasized the need to be present and available. She said, CAM’s goal was to “ask, don’t tell.” In other words, the board and staff and CAM strive to find out from museum-goers what they need, rather than just trying to impose on their patrons only what they assume might be needed.
Other programmatic improvements include PineCone moving their Bluegrass Jam Sessions at Busy Bee Cafe from a 3rd floor location to a first floor location and Raleigh Little Theatre's addition of audio described performances for all of their plays.
Learning Community Partners
In addition to Raleigh Arts Commission and United Arts Council whose participating staff members act as facilitators to the learning community, Arts Access is a member of the group. As Betsy Ludwig, executive director of Arts Access, explained, her organization does not put on performances or have a physical space in need of accessibility improvements. Instead Arts Access partners with arts organizations across North Carolina to improve accessibility. Betsy’s membership in the learning community allowed her to share her experience with accessibility issues and really contribute to the local community.
Learning community participants made it clear that the support of the community is key to the success of individual organizations. Accessibility is not something for one person to understand and fix in one place. Like most issues, accessibility issues are best faced as a team of people growing in knowledge and sharing ideas together. That is why, as Betsy Ludwig related, this group as a whole is making tremendous strides toward accessibility in Wake County in ways that other isolated organizations are not able to do on their own.
The Learning Community for Universal Access will continue to learn and grow together in its second year. United Arts Council and Raleigh Arts Commission announced that four new organizations will join the community and attend the LEAD conference in August 2016. They have also announced funding for the Resource Fair for Universal Access, one of the ideas to come out of the learning community, to be held October 16. Look for more details about the Resource Fair in the coming months.
—Karla Heinen, communications coordinator