2013 heralds the Lehigh Valley as the fourth region in the state to formally inaugurate a Pennsylvania Arts Access Program. In doing so, the Lehigh Valley joins other statewide partners in helping the cultural community become more accessible to and inclusive of people with disabilities.
Basically, the program provides people who have sensory disabilities (blindness/low-vision or deafness/hard-of-hearing) greater accessibility to cultural events by meeting the following goals:
1. Helping arts organizations increase accessibility
2. Building audiences and awareness
In return, cultural organizations gain access to an untapped segment of the market while positively confronting their fears about complying with the Americans for Disability Act.
It took two years and the commitment of many to build community-wide arts access collaboration in the Lehigh Valley. Under the leadership of VSA Pennsylvania (the state organization on arts and disabilities) and Philadelphia’s Amaryllis Theatre Company, the Tri-County Accessible Arts Coalition was created in 2011 to nurture relationships among the region’s disability and cultural communities.
The coalition includes the two largest disability service organizations in the region, the Center for Vision Loss and the Lehigh Valley Center for Independent Living; a number of individuals with disabilities; and a few cultural organizations, Muhlenberg College Theatre & Dance, Shawnee Playhouse, and the Lehigh Valley Arts Council. The groundwork has been laid and the practical steps of securing the necessary equipment, providing the training, and building audiences are underway.
Background of the Program
In 2003, under the leadership of Mimi Kenney Smith, Amaryllis founded the Greater Philadelphia arts access initiative, Independence Starts Here! Amaryllis was then asked to serve as the Pennsylvania affiliate for VSA, the international organization for arts and disabilities (now part of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts), and ever since has been working with the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and other statewide and local partners to increase accessibility to cultural events.
Three regions in the state, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and York/Lancaster, currently have programs established, and these programs are serving as models for the Lehigh Valley. On October 5, 2012, the 2012 National Accessibility Leadership Award for exceptional initiatives or programs that make the arts accessible and inclusive for older adults and individuals with disabilities was presented to the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts at its annual conference in Washington, D.C.
In the Lehigh Valley
In late 2010, Mary Ann Alexander, a blind woman working at the Center for Vision Loss in Allentown, spear-headed a new theatre access committee with VSA PA / Amaryllis. She invited members of the disability and cultural communities to join the committee, and in 2011, they established the Tri-County Accessible Arts Coalition with its own logo. The group meets monthly and has produced five accessible performances (four at Muhlenberg College Theatre and one at Shawnee Theatre) using equipment and training from VSA PA / Amaryllis. The coalition is currently led by Rita Lang of the Center for Vision Loss.
The Lehigh Valley Arts Council joined the coalition in 2011 to promote the program in the larger cultural community. The Arts Council also began to secure funding from local businesses and foundations to purchase audio-description and open-captioning equipment that will be shared among local arts groups.
Audio description is a form of audio-visual translation using natural pauses to insert narrative that translates the visual image into an audible form. Patrons use headsets to hear the audio description. Open captioning provides the audience with an electronic text display to the side of the stage, displaying lyrics, dialogue, and sound effects in real time. The Arts Council is responsible for housing, maintaining, and scheduling the equipment. It will work with the coalition to coordinate the mechanisms for marketing the accessible performances, such as managing monthly e-mail campaigns to a list of patrons developed through disability providers.
VSA PA / Amaryllis will provide training in audio description and open captioning to staff, board, or volunteer members of cultural organizations, and offer customer service training (which includes appropriate language, disability awareness, and tips for welcoming patrons with disabilities) to development, front-of-house, and other personnel of arts organizations.
Expanded Benefit Pool
While the program was created for primarily adult audience members at performing arts events, a growing number of beneficiaries have emerged beyond that initial market segment. For instance, the equipment is now regularly used at numerous children’s theatre productions in Philadelphia. Audio-description equipment has also been used to provide foreign language translation for a documentary film from Cambodia, and captioning is used on an ongoing basis to provide Spanish language translation at Fulton Opera in Lancaster and at selected productions in Greater Philadelphia. Most current research suggests that not only students with sensory disabilities can benefit from audio description and captioning, but also students with speech or language disabilities, as well as those with learning and cognitive disabilities.
The aging population of baby-boomers has also created a greater need to provide more accessible performances. According to the U.S. Census, more than 45% of people over 65 years of age have a disability. Seniors with disabilities control more than 40% of net assets in America.
Engaging the Local Community
Nonprofit arts organizations are invited to join the coalition and gain access to the use of this equipment. Thank you to the following organizations for their support toward the purchase of equipment: Butz Family Foundation; Just Born, Inc.; Keystone Nazareth Charitable Foundation; Rider Pool Foundation; and William C. Rybak Handicapped Citizens Fund of the Lehigh Valley Community Foundation.