Inclusion and Accessibility for Performers With Disabilities

Posted by Wendy Duke, Sep 16, 2019

Many performing arts groups and venues are working towards inclusion of their whole communities—both on-stage and in the audience.

Today we’re beginning to see special performances and additional accommodations for audience members with disabilities. This movement towards inclusion can include toned-down lighting, sound, and special effects to accommodate people with autism. It may involve sign language interpreters and captioning devices to assist deaf audience members, or large type or Braille programs and audio descriptions on headphones for a deeper understanding of what is happening on stage for those with vision challenges.

But inclusion doesn’t stop at the audience. It includes the stage, as well.

For Performers

In Akron, Ohio, you’ll discover Theatre on the Spectrum, a day-theatre company for adults with disabilities that operates as a partnership between the Center for Applied Drama and Autism and Ardmore, Inc.

The two nonprofits, which provide services for people with autism and other disabilities, collaborate to build a program with company members that span the spectrum of abilities. From actors in wheelchairs to players with cognitive disabilities, each player finds a common a desire to perform and entertain. They also share in common a frustration with the lack of both opportunity and accessible performance spaces that are essential to bringing about inclusion in the performing arts.

Theatre on the Spectrum performing at Garfield Heights Performing Arts Center, with a stage easily accessible by lift. From L to R Company Members: JT “Styles” Toomer, Scott Hudson, Joyce Wade, Brian Cogar, Amanda Bugenske, Samir Hammoud, Sean Giannetti, and Ruben Ryan, Assistant Program Director.

While we see some great strides being taken to include performers with disabilities (including Ali Stroker taking home a Tony Award for her groundbreaking performance in Oklahoma! on Broadway), too often, producers and directors do not include performers with disabilities in roles that any actor could play. Actors with disabilities are not meant only for roles that specify a disability for a character.

To make that goal a reality, opportunities must be created—not left to happenstance. Performing arts companies can reach out to local service providers to offer classes in acting, singing, or dancing. We regularly hear how local theater companies are surprised by the amount of unrecognized talent from performers with disabilities.

To gain experience, we also recommend that actors with disabilities be brought along by offering ensemble/supernumerary roles to gain experience.

For Performance Spaces

The performance space itself must also be accommodating for the performers. For a helpful checklist, here are some questions we always ask as part of Theatre on the Spectrum when invited to perform in someone else's space:

1. Is there access from drop-off to the stage? Are there adequate handicapped parking spaces? Is the load-in zone safe and accessible for actors and crew with disabilities? Many of our performers cannot navigate stairs. Even one step from sidewalk to entrance door can prevent an actor in a wheelchair from entering the venue.

2. Can performers access the stage from the house and the wings without going up steps? Some theatres have chair lifts that provide access.

3. Are there accessible restrooms for performers that are located close to the stage? Some performers will need to use the restroom right before they perform, or may have to leave the stage to use the restroom.

4. Are your restrooms really accessible? Just because you have grab bars installed does not make your restroom accessible for a person in a power wheelchair and their aide. Restroom stalls must have enough room for both the wheelchair to navigate and to include a personal care provider as needed.

5. Are your green rooms and/or dressing rooms accessible for actors with mobility issues? If dressing rooms are on another floor, they must be accessible via an elevator.

6. Do you have ramps available to accommodate actors in wheelchairs on stage as well as off? Note that designers should be aware of performers in wheelchairs so that they can design a set that allows the actor to make safe entrances and exits as well as including them within the stage settings.

7. Will the sound system cover our actors’ needs? Do you have enough lavalier microphones for each of our actors? Amplification is an essential aspect for many people with disabilities.

8. Can the venue offer stage lighting that provides a general wash without bright glaring lights that limit the performers' abilities to move and see while on stage?

We are encouraged by the movement towards inclusivity and encourage all performing arts venues and decision-makers to audit your accessibility and make those helpful upgrades which create inclusive and accessible spaces for people of all abilities. For more information on how to improve accessibility, you can contact the Kennedy Center’s LEAD  (Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability).