Patrons using captioning equipment | Courtesy of the Kentucky Center
Patrons using captioning equipment | Courtesy of the Kentucky Center

The Americans with Disabilities Act turned 25 this year, and to mark the occasion, the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts is hosting a Cultural Accessibility Summit on Saturday, March 26.

The Kentucky Center is a national leader in making programming accessible, and they are inviting the leaders, patrons and participants in Louisville’s vibrant arts scene to come together to talk about how to remove access barriers around the arts all over Louisville.

Betty Siegel of the Kennedy Center
Betty Siegel of the Kennedy Center

Programming for the summit includes speaker Betty Siegel, director of VSA and accessibility at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; Toby Roberts, manager of access at the Kentucky Center; a panel discussion with arts patrons from the disability community; and a special sensory performance of “Harold and the Purple Crayon.”

The event’s co-organizers, Toby Roberts and Talleri A. McRae, spoke with Insider Louisville about the genesis of the Accessibility Summit, the importance of disability services, and the services offered by the Kentucky Center.

McRae works as a consultant for several arts agencies, including StageOne, Actors Theatre and the Kentucky Center. She helps the organizations make their programming more accessible to the disabled community.

“Last year, I was able to celebrate the Americans with Disability Act in three different cities,” says McRae. She attended summits in D.C., Chicago and Miami, all of which addressed the accessibility in cultural institutions. “By the time I went to that third celebration in that third city, I thought, there’s no reason why Louisville shouldn’t have its own celebration and gather to talk about ways the art community in Louisville (can) be more intentional.”

McRae then reached out to Roberts and the Kentucky Center. “It felt like a natural fit when I was looking for a partner,” she says.

“When she came to me with this idea of hosting the summit, I thought this is perfect, this is a great idea,” recalls Roberts. He says accessibility access is simply good customer service. “For 20 years, the Kentucky Center has embraced the philosophy of radical customer service. That’s all access is, there’s no mystery to it.”

This customer service revolves around removing barriers to access. In addition to wheelchair accessibility, other forms of access include audio description, caption theater, sign interpretation and sensory friendly performances. The captioning of services and the audio description of performances are provided by “very passionate, highly trained” volunteers, according to Roberts.

Frequently, these two services are supplied by professionals, which greatly limits their availability.

“The beauty of having such a heavily staffed volunteer corps is we can offer a huge amount of services,” says Roberts. “In most places, (services) are request only. But here we have a full schedule that runs year round.”

In addition to their own services, this robust program is able to help other performing organizations around town. The Kentucky Center partners with Actors Theatre, and starting this summer, they will caption and describe for Kentucky Shakespeare.

A patron using audio description aids | Courtesy of the Kentucky Center
A patron using audio description aids | Courtesy of the Kentucky Center

Saturday’s Accessibility Summit also will feature a sensory-friendly performance by StageOne that is geared toward the needs of families and children on the autism spectrum. StageOne has offered sensory-friendly performances of each of their shows for several years. McRae and Roberts agree that these performance can be achieved without huge changes.

“It means there is a more welcoming, relaxed atmosphere in the theater,” says McRae. “Patrons are able to stand up and move around if that’s more comfortable for them.”

Offering kids freedom of movement may seem like a small thing, but the etiquette of silence and stillness provides a huge barrier.

“The goal is that families that are dealing with the autism spectrum in some way know they have a welcoming environment,” she adds. Families are also warned of jarring moments in plays.

The summit was purposefully timed to coincide with StageOne’s production of “Harold and the Purple Crayon.”

“We thought, ‘Why not show people how easy it is to make an atmosphere that’s friendly in that way?’” says McRae.

Both McRae and Roberts stress the importance of listening to the voices of the population that needs these services, and they are excited about the summit’s panel discussion led by patrons.

“It’s vital to have an avenue for back and forth and for feedback,” explains McRae. “Access service has to be practical and functional, and one of the greatest resources you have is to talk to people who are navigating that on a regular basis.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 2.40.55 PMRoberts adds, “We’re very lucky to have some very smart people who are able to voice what they need. So I know a few of the people who are going to be on the panel, and I’m very excited.”

Though the idea for the summit came from McRae, she was quick to credit Roberts, the Kentucky Center and other partners. “I couldn’t do it alone. Making things accessible is all about partnership.”

She hopes that spirit of partnership will inform the summit. “It’s not about gathering people together and feeding them information,” she says. “It’s about creating a community where we all feel comfortable enough to connect with each other and learn with each other.”

The Cultural Accessibility Summit takes place from 8 a.m.-1:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 26. Admission is $10 and includes breakfast and lunch. For tickets, click here.

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Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.