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Access programming for theaters and how to tell patrons about it

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Arts accessibility awareness is growing across the sector, and with that, organizations have begun to put more thought into the programs they offer and how they communicate about them. On the programming side, many theaters offer ASL interpretations, open captions, assisted listening devices, and audio description. However, in recent years, organizations have expanded their range of programming. Many of these new offerings make use of the latest technology to bring patrons with access needs closer to the arts. These programs include touch tours, relaxed and sensory-friendly performances, and personal open caption devices. But building a truly accessible experience extends beyond artistic programming into how theaters market their accessible programs.

Here is a closer look at the building blocks to creating an accessible experience in the venue — from the established to the more recent — as well as how organizations can communicate with them in the online booking path.

Types of Access Programming: In-venue and Online

In-venue:

  • Assisted Listening Devices: The most common accessibility aids, assisted listening devices, come in various forms: some connect to wifi or Loop technologies, while others use FM frequencies. Most are designed to be worn around the neck or clipped onto a shirt pocket and have the option of utilizing headphones, or with the help of a t-coil (a coil in a hearing aid that serves as a wireless antenna), some devices can transmit directly to hearing device wearer.
  • Audio Description (AD) often uses the same assisted listening devices, but operates on a different channel, and is usually only available on certain days. During these specific shows, an audio describer sits in the stage manager's booth and describes the visual action on the stage for the benefit of visually impaired audience members.
  • Open Caption (OC) or Smart Glasses: Another alternative for individuals who are hard of hearing, open captioning is traditionally provided for specific shows. It involves one or two digital boards placed on either side of the stage with the subtitles of the play scrolling along. Over the last several years, smart glasses have been a new development on the open captioning front. Developed by Accenture technologies and the National Theatre of England, these glasses are designed to be worn as regular glasses or on top of an individual's glasses, and show captions in the glasses themselves.
  • ASL Interpreted (ASL) performances usually feature two or more interpreters performing downstage off to one side, interpreting the dialogue for audience members. Specific seats are usually designated as access seats for this performance so that individuals who utilize the interpreters can see interpreters and the action on the stage. Recently, ASL interpreters have been getting viral attention for their interpreting at music festivals and concerts.
  • Touch Tours are designed so that patrons with visual impairments get a chance to experience the costumes and magic of the set. These tours usually happen prior to the show and will feature props and costume fabrics, along with anecdotal explanations of any visual spectacles within the show. These tours are a fascinating insight into the intricate levels of artistry and craftsmanship, and provide some illuminating context for patrons who might otherwise not get to experience the full effect of the show.
  • Relaxed (or Sensory Friendly) Performances (RP) are shows modified to allow individuals with sensory processing disorders to experience the performance without triggers. Originally designed for individuals on the autism spectrum, these modifications include keeping the house lights on at mid-level, allowing food and drink inside the auditorium (as well as tablets and electronic devices), adapting any elements of the show that include strobe lights, loud bangs, or other startling effects. These performances are often accompanied by communications sent prior to the show with social stories, giving images of the venue and information on the show to help patrons on the spectrum familiarize themselves with the new space. 

Relaxed performances also feature a quiet space where individuals can decompress if they feel overstimulated, as well as an activity room where they can expend extra energy. Most importantly, these events are considered “judgement-free” or “shush-free” zones, meaning that all natural expressions are welcome and encouraged in whatever form they may take.

Although originally intended for the autism community, relaxed performances have been much further reaching: individuals with dementia, ADHD, tourettes, as well as their families have all enjoyed the relaxed performance modifications. These shows are a great example of just how much joy is possible when individuals who are usually marginalized and turned away are instead accepted and accommodated. 

Online:

  • Pre-show emails are a great opportunity to familiarize audiences with the venue and the programming. For relaxed performances, they provide a chance to send social stories to patrons to help them prepare for their visit.
  • Allowing patrons to self-identify online is the best way to get accurate data, and also useful for learning which patrons are interested in access programming. 
  • Flagging accessible seats: Use information boxes or the seating plan’s communication tools to clearly label companion seats to wheelchair seating on the online booking path. 
  • Make sure patrons know about access performances: Even if a frequent patron has never attended an access show, they may still be interested. Make sure they know what the venue has to offer. 

Related reading: How to Tell Your Customers About Your Access Performances

The approach to building an accessible experience will be different for every organization, and will depend heavily on the feedback they receive by consulting their community. With that connection, organizations can better welcome new audiences into their spaces.