Accessibility: Who Needs It? More and More, It’s Arts Patrons

Vision, hearing, mobility: Arts organizations must reckon w/age-related disabilities or lose core audience. Tweet This

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July 2015 marks the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Trust is raising awareness about the importance of accessibility and inclusion, partnering with advocacy organizations—and a growing number of arts and cultural institutions.

Why the arts? Chicago data indicate that almost half of all arts audience members are over age 55. This percentage shoots up among patrons of the classical arts, including symphonic music, ballet, Shakespeare and other traditional genres. So, in addition to focusing on those who have been disabled throughout their lives, arts organizations are beginning to confront the challenges posed by age-related disabilities that increasingly impact their core audience.

The disability population has paved the way. Many individuals spend a lifetime developing their advocacy and coping skills, learning to overlook insensitivity and inconvenience rather than forgoing experiences. Arts patrons without disability experience, however, are usually embracing their concert, museum, or theater experiences as part of their social circle and enriching leisure time.

But now, arthritis makes it tough to race to the ladies room and back in a large venue during intermission. Or macular degeneration makes it impossible to read the program in the dim light. Or they can’t find an appropriate place to sit and wait while their daughter goes to get the car. The enjoyment is diminished; frustration is tinged with embarrassment, and a sense that they are imposing on their companions. And as a result… they stay home. Not only is this a source of disappointment (and even depression) for someone who has loved the arts all their lives, but it can spell disaster for the institution whose subscription and donor base feels itself excluded.

Feedback collected by ADA 25 Chicago and informed by the Arts and Business Council, the League of Chicago Theatres and other sources, offers insight from disability advocates that is equally true for those struggling with age-related disabilities. Listening to customers and prioritizing outstanding customer service consistently ranks as the most effective means of both attracting new audiences and retaining the current patrons as they age.

Often the obstacles are specific to the venue, so the most essential first step is to meet with focus groups of subscribers and invite them to identify issues that may inhibit the enjoyment for themselves or others. Most adult children are eager to discuss ways to improve the experience of going to a concert or play with their parents. Once the subject is broached, a little sensitivity and facilitation can elicit many more ideas.