Nothing Succeeds Like Access
So you want to go out -- perhaps to the movies or the theatre. If you're like me, at most you decide to go only hours before the show. You jump in the car, careen to the theatre, and slide into your seat with a few minutes to spare. Imagine having to arrange for transportation one week in advance and having no guarantee that you will be able to use it. Or getting to the theatre on time but then not being able to get inside the building. Or getting inside only to find that there's no area that can accommodate you for seating. Or getting a seat but discovering that you can't follow what's happening on the screen or stage. Any of those things would be unbelievably frustrating, wouldn't it? Well, now you have an idea of what it's like for many local patrons of the arts and cinema -- those with disabilities, for whom the occurrences described above are all too common.
Surprised that a city of Austin's size, which has both a thriving arts community and significant disability population, is not very accessible to patrons of the arts with disabilities? So was Betty Siegel. In 1995, the then-manager of the AusTix arts ticket service, began meeting with other individuals interested in improving accessibility to cultural events for arts lovers with disabilities. From their early meetings came Access Austin Arts (AAA), an organization that was originally designed to serve the city's blind population. Its first order of business was to recruit and train volunteers to provide live descriptions of performing arts events for the vision impaired. Shortly afterward, Siegel urged the group to expand its mission to include all disabilities, hoping that the measure would provide for a broad range of services and accommodate any population for any event. Siegel feared that any exclusion, whether direct or indirect, would limit the organization's ability to serve an as-yet unidentified population, possibly placing the programs at cross-purposes with the organization's original intent. She wanted everyone, present and future, to benefit from their efforts.
Two years later, Access Austin Arts was granted official nonprofit status, had an executive director -- Siegel -- and was distributing a bimonthly newsletter announcing events, providing support for smaller initiatives as an umbrella organization and clearinghouse for clients, and consulting with local theatres on accessibility planning. Siegel has since moved on to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where she serves as director of accessibility, but she continues to lobby for accessibility issues nationally and provides inspiration and guidance for the AAA staff she left behind. Siegel sees her personal mission as being the one to ask the "What about ...? question" to secure public awareness and attention to the needs of all populations within an audience.
From a cramped office in Hyde Park, AAA executive director Celia Hughes and video project coordinator Mary Raper attend to the daily needs of the ever-growing organization. including the recruitment of additional volunteers while trying to stretch funding from the city of Austin, the Texas Commission for the Blind, the Texas Commission on the Arts and the occasional foundation grant to meet every request for services. So far, most of their staff are volunteers who, besides audio-description, maintain assistive listening equipment at theatres and attend comprehensive training sessions. They juggle responsibilities as coordinators, publishers, marketers, and consultants for programs that enhanced the cultural experiences of more than 500 patrons at local shows and museums in 1998.
Hughes and Raper are generous with printed material, enthusiastically providing me with information ranging from guidelines for respectfully communicating with persons who have disibilities to diagrams of assistive listening devices. One humorous handout, the "Usher Accessibility Quiz," demonstrates some of the incorrect and just-plain-rude reactions that persons with disabilities encounter on a daily basis. It is used by the Paramount Theatre to increase awareness of accessibility issues and to train ushers how to respond quickly and competently in issues of this nature. In a nonthreatening manner, the "quiz" lists common incorrect responses and outlandish behavior, and extends some really sound advice. Question seven states: "Tonight there is a sign interpreted performance and a person who is deaf comes to your aisle. In order to ensure clear communication, you ...
a) Shout very loudly.
b) Over-exaggerate your speech and gesture wildly.
c) Hold your hand up in front of your mouth.
d) Get a piece of paper and write your response down for the patron to read."
Don't worry, there is no grade, as they assume everyone will pass.
Both Siegel and Hughes maintain that although they have had incredible support, "invisibility" is a difficult hurdle to surmount. For the most part, the general community still does not know that Access Austin Arts exists. So as AAA strives to provide education about its services, it must aim not only at the specific population that would use the services, but also at administrators, other patrons, and artists. Artists need to know that they have a largely untapped audience in patrons with disabilities and that they can reach them -- easily -- by using Access Austin Arts as a resource. Administrators need to be convinced that physical modifications to their sites are rarely cost-prohibitive and that accessibility services during performances are not overly intrusive to other patrons. Siegel maintains that the toughest challenge for the organization is changing people's attitudes, "convincing them that this is the right thing to do without having to resort to lawsuits to make changes. Because if they are forced to make changes, they will never be full partners to the accommodation process. It's not enough just to have the equipment to satisfy the law. On-site staff must be trained and we can provide that."
One of the key services Access Austin Arts provides for its clients is audio-description, a communications system through which information about a theatre or dance event, movie, or exhibit is discreetly relayed to a patron during a performance. The audio-describer sits in the audience and speaks into a specially-designed microphone which covers the mouth and describes the performance to patrons wearing assistive listening devices that resemble headsets. Similar equipment is used to amplify sound and reduce ambient noise for patrons who are hard of hearing. Some theatres, such as the State Theater, have separate booths for audio-describers so their activities can be completely concealed. Chances are, unless you sat next to an audio-describer, you didn't even know one was present at the last show you attended. The theatres in Austin that currently support audio-description (AD) are too numerous to name here, but they include large venues such as Bass Concert Hall in the UT Performing Arts Center (PAC) and the Paramount, smaller houses such as the State and the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, and outdoor venues such as the Sheffield Hillside Theatre in Zilker Park. But theatres for live performance aren't the only cultural entities to offer AAA's AD services. Cinemark's Barton Creek Cinema, Gateway Theatre, and Great Hills Theatre provide AD at selected showings. Their inaugural AD movie, Titanic, attracted 75 patrons to four showings in 1997. And local museums have also begun to utilize AAA's descriptions: The Austin Museum of Art has provided described tours of select exhibitions and the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum now offers a "touch tour" of 12 pieces. Both the recently renovated State Theater and the Texas State History Museum under construction have taken physical and programmatic accessibility into account during construction. The History Museum has also purchased a captioning and AD system for its accompanying IMAX Theatre.
For the recent Austin premiere of Rent,I was able to experience AD firsthand. It was 7pm on a busy Friday night at Bass Concert Hall. Downstairs, Rent groupies wait for the show's customary last-minute front-row seats to go on sale. Upstairs (way upstairs) in a tiny, isolated booth on the seventh floor, Jeff Shaevel and Kevin Triplett of Mopac Media set up equipment to audio-describe the performance. As Shaevel tests the microphone, which was connected to several assistive listening devices in the auditorium below, I browsed through his extensive notes on stage design, action, actor biographies, physical descriptions, and the history of the show. The notes -- the product of both Shaevel's research and previews of dress rehearsals and/or prior viewings of the show -- comprise most of his "script," which he will begin to read 15 minutes before curtain. This additional information is designed to give the listeners a jump-start on the cultural and artistic context of the piece as well as a chance to test the equipment. Using a flashlight to occasionally glance at his notes, Shaevel begins to speak in a soothing voice, establishing a common vocabulary for areas of the stage in this complex and fast-paced musical. Pausing only to allow the lyrics to be heard, he will describe the action until intermission. He goes over stage direction, light cues, choreography, and blocking, careful to avoid voicing judgments or coloring the actions with his emotions. At my puzzled look, he gives an example. "If he points to the door, you can only say that he 'indicated' the door by pointing to it. You cannot say that he 'asked her to leave.' That is your own interpretation. The audience must be allowed to come to their own conclusions using the detailed descriptions that you have provided." Shaevel stresses that it is very important not to be too emotionally involved in the show you're describing because it will affect your descriptions; the audio-describer must remain neutral. He also admits that this is a particularly dificult assignment because he is a huge fan of the musical.
Director Shaevel and videographer Triplett are also part of a groundbreaking new project sponsored by Austin Access Arts. A generous grant from the Texas Commission for the Blind is funding the creation of training videos and accompanying workbooks and manuals for prospective audio-describers, the first of its kind nationwide. Besides providing professional, standardized training for volunteers, the material can be used to recruit volunteers, to foster community awareness through the contacts made to produce the videos, and most importantly, to reach more prospective patrons so they can enhance their theatre experience. Five volumes of the training materials are planned for release by the middle of next year. Volume one focuses on audio-description for the arts and includes theatre, film, dance, opera, and museums. Volume two covers audio-description for educational and workplace locations such as lectures and business meetings. The third and fourth volumes will offer practice segments, and the fifth volume will act as an introductory and promotional tool.
Shaevel and Triplett are grateful for the outpouring of local and national support. The Paramount and the PAC graciously donated time and space to accommodate filming of narrative segments and backstage scenes. Austin Lyric Opera, Ballet Austin, Zilker Botanical Gardens, Kinesis Dance Theatre, and various theatre companies have agreed to consult and provide material for filming. On the national level, MGM Productions has given permission to use clips from a large selection of its classic films, and in accordance with MGM's provisions, Encore Video has waived rental fees for videos to preview films from the list. Shaevel and Triplett expect to begin testing the first volume and workbooks at the next AD training session scheduled for November.
Meanwhile, the work continues at the Kennedy Center in the nation's capital and in the cozy Hyde Park office in Austin. Based on the idea that access is a right, not a privilege, Access Austin Arts follows the mission of its founder by asking the "What about?" question, advocating change and acceptance for arts patrons with disabilities. The people at AAA hope that by removing some of the frustrating barriers that prevent audience members from attending performances, movies, and art exhibits, Austin can set a precedent for other cities -- so that perhaps one day when you are diving into your seat as the curtain parts, you will be able to look around and see a more diverse audience in a theatre committed to the idea of total communication for everyone.