Highlights from NAAC’s “Creating Accessible Art” Panel

On January 18th, NAAC’s Mentorship and Sponsorship Program recently held a discussion, “Creating Accessible Art,” focused on how rising arts administrators can make performances of all kinds more welcoming to people with disabilities. The conversation included Ellice Patterson, the Founder/Executive and Artistic Director of Abilities Dance, and Christopher S. Robinson, an ASL Interpreter and Accessibility Consultant with Think Outside the VOX who works at Boston University and with organizations across the region.  The conversation was facilitated by NAAC and ArtsBoston Program Coordinator Nate Shu.

The transcript below, in Q+A format, was reduced for space and edited.  You may view the full discussion here.

NATE SHU (NS): What does accessibility and equity in the arts mean to you? What does it mean for art to be accessible?

CHRISTOPHER ROBINSON (CR): One of the hot terms that we’re thinking quite a lot about is ableism. And particularly anti-ableism. Some people may not have vocabulary for this. Dr. Talila Lewis has helped to simplify the idea of what ableism is. Their interpretation is this notion of placing value: upon our minds, cognitively what we can do; physically what we can do; and the value in what we produce. So when we’re talking about accessibility, we’re talking about a value to humans.

NS: What kind of overlap do you see, in terms of the way society treats ableism along with being a person of color? It’s a loaded question, for sure.

ELLICE PATTERSON (EP): I think that with ableism, racism, racial equity work, disability justice work, we’re still not in a fully inclusive mindset. We’re focused on racial equity work where disability justice isn’t yet a part of what we do. 

We have people of color who are leaders, and so many of us live with these intersections of race and disability. Without considering folks who are living at these intersections, we’re leaving people behind in our equity work. 

I would love for leaders of color in the arts to really embrace access, not just in one show, or by thinking “we have a ramp…yay!”  Think about all of the ways access can live…all the way up from internships to executive leadership.

I’ve had so many conversations with BIPOC and deaf and disabled activists, past and present. We’re all saying the same thing: we feel like we don’t belong in our own communities. I know I don’t feel, in many ways, part of the not-disabled dance community in Boston. Sometimes because I can’t understand what folks are saying, or because to access a meeting or conversation I have to go up 3 flights. There needs to be more understanding for all of us.


CR: There are black and brown people with intersectional identities, with queer identities. But we are not the ones in power. We don’t own the buildings. So, how do we negotiate for ourselves (our needs)? What can folks do who are just strapped, economically?

EP: People think, “oh, we don’t have the money. We don’t have the people, we don’t have the time.” But a lot of the stuff, the resources that can help with accessibility is free. 

As to what we can do, starting with using your learning mindset, learning from people who represent those you want to reach and paying them for their time. It’s a similar situation as when we talk about black and brown folks doing the labor of free racial equity work. People with disabilities shouldn’t do free access work, either. 

An example that recently happened to me was attending a show, not knowing that they have flashing lights in the show, which gave me seizures. I had to leave, then come back to them later [to say what happened]. Now I hear they are adding light warnings to all of their shows. I just gave them my ideas for free.

It brings up interesting points about the way accessibility politics kind of plays out. The burden of asking for the resources is all on the person who needs it. We have to ask for services rather than having them be accessible and available from producers. How can we work with communities to be inclusive in that way without having it become a kind of tokenism?

First, you have to have deaf and disabled voices in the room – when decisions are being made – not just at the end, when you’re asking for a quick consult. Whether through the creation of new work, hiring, board mentorship or board leadership, there needs to be more voices.  So having those voices really makes all the difference, it makes change happen internally.

CR: Build it in, don’t bolt it on!

ER: Everyone here came into this room tonight expecting there would be chairs. You all expect that there are some core elements to an experience like this one. Elements that are already there. Imagine, if you had to stand for an hour, 2 hours, imagine if you’re pregnant, there are so many reasons that that this situation could be excruciating [without the core elements]. Now imagine every single place you go, you to have to ask for a seat. You can feel how exhausting that is, how frustrating that would be.

We don’t negotiate access in my space. It’s all baked in, every time. There’s always ASL. There’s always audio descriptions of the work. There’s always captions. There’s always the elements so people know that they can just exist like every other audience member, they don’t have that to look forward [and predict if they’ll need accommodations]. And it’s humanizing. 

CS:  That idea there is very Keith Jones [a Disability Activist and Artist with cerebral palsy]. Mr. Jones says, quite often, “disability is a part of the spectrum of humanity.” But only some aspects of disability are normalized. Like eyeglasses – we normalize that accommodation. And like what Ellice said about chairs, or lighting.

After panelists spoke, members of the NAAC audience were invited to ask questions

AUDIENCE QUESTION 1 (AQ1), for Christopher: I would love to hear more about your work with the Landmarks Orchestra because I’m a classical music person. I was sitting in on some of the rehearsals for Landmarks this summer, and I noticed the ASL interpretation. I have never seen that at an orchestra. I am curious how that came about.

CR: LIke many organizations, at first there was a question: “Let’s put some sign language interpreters up there,” you know.  So I thought…“what is the thinking here? Classical music. No words, no text. Why put a sign language interpreter up there?” However, I didn’t say no…I talked to some Deaf artists and I posed this question of whether to do this. They said “yes!” This was an opportunity for an artform to be anti-ableist.

Instead of just putting sign language interpreters up there, we negotiated with Landmarks Orchestra to state thatthe sign language interpreters are NOT telling deaf people how music sounds. That’s ableist..that’s a clinical response. What we are doing is elevating language…like with the German, Italian, French operas. This is an additional language with the backdrop of an orchestra, just like the other languages you can perceive with the backdrop of an orchestra.


AQ2, for both speakers: I’m the managing director for a music festival. One of the conversations we’ve been having is about the physical space; we are thinking about all the different ways that we can be more intentional in that space. Are there recommendations or issues that you’ve probably seen throughout the city that we should be considering?

EP: It is possible to have events outside, and for them, to be accessible.  For the artists, there are stages that are accessible, with access that isn’t forcing people to use the same ramp that the band equipment is loaded in on. Those aren’t accessible ramps and they are very dangerous. Think about proximity to bathrooms. Make the bathrooms accessible. Make sure ASL interpreters are actually visible. (If there’s a screen, is there also a screen for the ASL interpreter?) In situations like these festivals, sensory overload can happen. Is there enough space where someone can kind of move to the periphery and still be part of the experience without feeling as though there are people all around.

Are there seats? 

CR: There are a couple of resources where you can revisit all those bullet points. One organization that does internal assessment, as well as external assessment is the Institute for Human Centered Design. Some of the narrative on their site will engage you to ask different questions when you’re bidding for a vendor to bring your stage.

Another resource is the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) accessibility guide. It’s got some fundamental questions they bring up that may help you where you’re at…“Am I asking the right questions here about ordering things, materials, mics, stands, chairs.”  The Mass Cultural Council also has many online access resources, too.


AQ3, for both panelists: How do you not burn out [doing this work]? What resources do you rely upon to keep from burning out?

EP: It happens. It’s hard. There are places you don’t anticipate that will hurt you. Especially if we’re talking about communities. I’ve experienced some of the worst types of instances of ableism and other “isms” from folks in my community. So it’s about building community that resonates, that understands our needs…a community of allies.

CR:  Allies are the people who can pick up some of that work.  Like when we don’t want to explain what audio descriptions are, for the 20 millionth time…the basic things in our community. A lot of folks don’t have that cultural competency. I [we] can’t be the ones to give you the 101 every single time. An ally can step up and be that. Hopefully you all here tonight can do that as well.

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