One characteristic cannot sum up who anyone is and America has been making great strides in accepting people regardless of their race, sexual orientation and disability if they have one.
“It used to be that the disability made up the person, but now it’s just something that’s a part of them,” says Roseann Damico Schatkowski, who considers herself an advocate for people with disabilities. “Be kind to people who are different in any way. Try to make them feel welcome and that they belong in the society,” says Schatkowski as her positive energy and warm smile light up the room.
Schatkowski is the Director of Marketing & PR and the Playbill Advertising Representative for Act 1 Productions, DeSales University’s Performing Arts Company. About three years ago, DeSales began making accommodations for people with visual and hearing loss by having at least one open captioned (OC) and audio described (AD) performance for almost every production. Audio description utilizes headsets to provide a narrative during natural pauses in the performance, translating images for patrons who are visually impaired. With open captioning, audience members with hearing loss may view electronic text throughout the show, with lyrics, dialogue, and sound effects in real time. DeSales rents the OC screen and AD transmitters and receivers from the Lehigh Valley Arts Council for a small fee.
“[DeSales] wanted to give access to people who normally wouldn’t have the services,” explains Schatkowski. “The services have been around for a really long time and a lot of performing arts venues don’t take advantage of it.”
Schatkowski has been around people with disabilities all of her life and growing up with a blind father has really shaped with the way she sees disabled people. Schatkowski recalls the lack of accommodation in the 70s and how people treated her dad. People would cut in front of him while he was waiting in line just because he couldn’t see. She also remembers going to the movies where he would ask, “What happened? What happened!” because it’s a very visual experience.
People with disabilities have the right to enjoy the same things people without them enjoy. Schatkowski believes that audio description is one step towards that goal. “They don’t have to miss what’s coming up next and their companion doesn’t have to worry about having to talk and explain to them what’s going on,” explains Schatkowski. “It opens up a whole new world for them.”
Schatkowski has a ten year old son, Matthew, who has Muscular Dystrophy and uses a wheelchair. He attends Lehigh Parkway Elementary where the staff and students have been wonderful and even provide him with physical therapy. “They don’t treat him like the kid in the wheelchair,” Schatkowski says happily.
Although there are still some prejudices and old-fashioned attitudes toward people with disabilities, perceptions are definitely changing. Restaurants, parks, and other public places are trying to be as welcoming and accommodating as possible. “We have finally started to see people for who they are and see through their disability,” says Schatkowski.
She is hopeful for more and more opportunities for people with disabilities. There are places Matthew can’t go like amusement parks or certain restaurants; however, he never complains about using a wheelchair. “He knows that if he wants to do something, I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that we can go do it,” says Schatkowski.
It is also important to remember that not every disability is visible. We can see wheelchairs and seeing eye dogs, but might not be able to spot people with autism or emotional disabilities.
In the future, Schatkowski would love for every arts organization in the Lehigh Valley to have accessible performances. Even though it is one more thing for organizations to do, they should take advantage of the services available because in the end, it is the right thing to do.
It brings joy to her that the majority of people who attend performances at DeSales are appreciative of the accessibility and also excited for the experience. “We’re shining a light on people’s daily lives,” says Schatkowski.
by Kellie Dietrich, Intern with the Lehigh Valley Arts Council