All access creating unique events for people with disabilities

All Access: Creating Unique Events for People With Disabilities

Rebecca Tsui Member Spotlight

Live event organizations are constantly faced with the challenge of how to develop and grow their audience. To do this, it’s crucial for them to be welcoming and accessible for all. Some patrons and fans are overlooked during the planning process. This can result in making them feel isolated or even discouraged from attending future events. Attendees who are often overlooked and underrepresented include those with intellectual or physical disabilities including autism or dementia. In recent years, venues and event producers are focusing more and more on ways to make events for people with disabilities welcoming, accessible and inclusive, beyond the minimum ADA requirements.

Underrepresented audiences such as the physically disabled are growing in attendance at live events

People attend live events to enjoy the experience and a sense of community. However, sometimes there are barriers that may deter some people from attending. Recently, a blind patron who attended Hamilton sued the Broadway show for failing to provide accommodations for the visually impaired. This could probably have been avoided, perhaps by providing headsets for the visually impaired. Other live event attendees with disabilities have talked candidly about the many challenges they face at venues. Some of these challenges include not being able to bring a personal assistant, lack of accessibility information on venue websites and unaccommodating security personnel. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Having a disability should never be a barrier to attendance and participation at live event the experiences.

There are steps organizations can take to make events more broadly accessible and welcoming. For example, Holly Maniatty, an ASL interpreter, provides equal access to deaf music festival attendees by interpreting the music performances. Holly conducts extensive research on the artist and lyrics beforehand and knows she is successful when she sees the deaf attendees dropping with the beat and the crowd. Festivals like Stagecoach and Coachella have also followed suit. At some stages and tents, there’s a special area close to the stage for attendees that are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Fans are often seen signing along to the music with the interpreters.

Holly Maniatty at Jazz Fest in New Orleans enthusiastically signing along to Snoop Dogg

Many performing arts organizations, like the New Albany Symphony Orchestra, offer sensory-friendly performances for those with autism and Alzheimer’s. These performances are thoughtfully designed to make those with special needs feel comfortable by not having sudden or drastic noise level changes, lights only being partially dimmed and allowing patrons to leave or get up as they please. These performances allow parents to introduce theater to kids whose special needs might make them too “fidgety” or “talkative” for traditional shows. This is an example of how removing certain barriers can help special audiences feel welcome. Not only is it morally right, producing events for people with disabilities also serves to expand and diversify an organization’s audience.

Performers during sensory friendly New Albany Orchestra

Performers during a sensory-friendly show at New Albany Orchestra

Some organizations have taken additional steps to be inclusive and have created special programs to reach and engage these audiences. Debbie’s Angels Productions, a theatre in North Carolina, created a space of inclusion for those with autism through their “Acting with Autism and Special Needs” program. The program has changed lives of many by using theatre as a method to teach social skills.

Kids performance in a Debbie Angles Productions

Kids during a performance by Debbie’s Angels Productions, a theatre company offering programs for those with special needs or autism

For people living with dementia, the condition can lead to feelings of isolation. But recent studies have shown that engagement with art and creativity can diminish the severity of the condition and serve to foster improved social connections. The Edmonds Center for the Arts, a nonprofit organization located outside of Seattle, has made great strides to serve audiences impacted by dementia through creative and social enrichment programming.

Intergenerational programming at Edmonds Center for the Arts

The program creates an intergenerational setting, allowing the youth to connect with the elderly.

The program started as a one-off workshop in partnership with Songwriting Works, an organization facilitating songwriting with those affected by dementia. After the workshop, ECA saw the demand from the community when many people asked when the next workshop would be. Based on the community’s interest, ECA decided to turn the workshop into a series of dementia-inclusive programs.

Creative programming for people with dementia at the Edmonds Center for the Arts

Creative experiences provide opportunities for people with dementia to engage their senses, express themselves and connect with others.

They now offer a variety of programs in the series including folk dance, improv films and more. The series attracts an intergenerational audience, allowing youth performers and family members of all ages to connect with the elderly. And as a result, it expands their audience to those that are not usually targeted.

Funding can be a main concern for organizations interested in starting similar programs.

Gillian Jones director of programming for the Edmonds Center for the Arts

Gillian Jones
Director of Programming for the Edmonds Center for the Arts

Gillian Jones, ‎Director of Programming for the Edmonds Center for the Arts advises, “Donors and funders feel good about supporting programs that benefit the community. Don’t underestimate the impact of showing your passion for a project, and how it relates to your organization’s mission.” Community partnerships, like teaming up with Songwriting Works, have also played a large role in the success of the program. Gillian says that these partnerships, in addition to word of mouth, have helped them reach their target audience.

Muncie Civic Theatre’s Barrier-Free Theatre program, is another great example of an organization that fosters an inclusive community through the arts by offering events for people with disabilities. The Barrier-Free Theatre program was the first of it’s kind in Indiana and it caters towards people over the age of 17 with intellectual or physical disabilities. During the 9-month program, participants create and produce an original play from scratch.

Barrier Free Theatre performance

Participants in the program create and produce an original play from scratch

Tracena Marie, the Director of Therapeutic Arts at Muncie Civic Theatre helped launch the program in 2014. She explains that, “Drama therapy—or therapeutic arts—is an action-oriented form of therapy that the participants experience emotionally and physically.” Participants practice regulating their emotions while also enhancing their social and communication skills.

Trancena Marie Director of Therapeutic Arts at Muncie Civic Theatre

Tracena Marie
Director of Therapeutic Arts at Muncie Civic Theatre

Another therapeutic aspect of the program is finding a relevant theme taken from the group’s lives and incorporating it into the play so the subject matter resonates with them. For example, last year several participants had experienced the loss of a loved one. Tracena used grief as a central theme for the storyline. This gave the participants an opportunity to discuss how to deal with grief as they created and rehearsed the play. In the end, the heroine of the play overcame her grief through personal strength and friendships.

After a few weeks in the program, participants become more receptive to performing on stage. “The key is to focus on the ability, not the disability”, says Tracena. “It’s important to meet the participants at their own level. That’s where their confidence and self-esteem builds. Validating their individual skills and talents helps foster creativity.”

Participants in Barrier Free Theatre

“Validating their individual skills and talents help foster creativity.”
–Tracena Marie

As the program grows, Muncie Civic Theatre is committed to maintaining the quality of the program and including the larger community. Many community members and students studying speech pathology and psychology get involved as volunteers. Volunteer applicants are asked to write an essay on why they want to participate. This measure helps Tracena ensure “their heart is in the program.” In addition, the program is capped at a certain number of participants to ensure a quality experience and personal attention for all involved.

Tracena talking about the Barrier-Free Theatre program

Although launching an inclusive program featuring events for people with disabilities can be daunting, the first step is to reach out to community organizations to learn about their needs. Tracena says, “Start the conversation and from there, take action”. Figure out how your organization can be more inclusive and accessible to those with disabilities, and don’t forget to talk directly with people impacted by disabilities to understand their needs.

Increasing accessibility will grow and diversify your audience, but the true reward will be seeing the lives you change.


How do you cater to special audiences and what do you do to make your events inclusive and welcoming?

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