If you don’t have a straightforward job, the ubiquitous “What do you do?” question can be a doozy. Being in the cultural accessibility field, it’s never easy to answer this line of questioning. I think I have my elevator pitch down: I focus on how to better include and welcome visitors with disabilities to cultural organizations, including theaters, museums, zoos, aquaria and more.
Each August I attend the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability Conference, organized by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a rare opportunity to surround myself with people who also are in this niche and vital field. Newcomers and those “access veterans” who have been striving to make cultural organizations more accessible for decades all attend to form a strong network.
It’s the uncommon conference where nearly everyone is friends, even those who have just met, and people actually attend the sessions. Thanks to ADA 25 Chicago and a matching grant from The Chicago Community Trust’s Persons with Disabilities Fund, we were able to extend the opportunity to attend this conference to cultural administrators from seven ADA 25 for 25 Cultural Access Project partners:
- Chicago Theatre Group, Goodman Theatre
- Illinois Humanities
- Harris Theater for Music and Dance
- Chicago Humanities Festival
- Lifeline Theatre
- Chicago History Museum
- Shedd Aquarium
For these grants, emphasis was placed on first-time attendees, and each of the grantees had a plan in place to disseminate information they learned at the conference to their colleagues when they returned.
Just as we predicted, the attendees who benefited from the PWD matching grants were as invigorated and motivated from the conference as returning attendees. Three of the matching grant recipients shared the following about attending the conference:
LEAD was informative and enlightening… One of the things I’ve gotten out of it is that “person first” thinking—to not see people as their disability, but as a person who has had different life experiences… It’s helped me to formulate goals to not simply provide the basics of accommodation, but a richer, overall welcoming and seamless visit for the community.
Before I attended LEAD the anticipation of implementing this new programming was not only daunting but also a bit scary. My fears were put to rest after having conversations with many people who have done similar programming and hearing about some of the situations that they have had and how they handled them.
LEAD is all about sharing resources and connecting with a diverse group of people who are all asking the same question: How do we give everyone the ability to experience things together? To be immersed in such an array of arts communities collaborating to enhance the experience of all guests in their space was nothing short of inspiring.
The Chicago region had an impressive showing with 21 attendees at this year’s LEAD Conference—more than in previous years. This demonstrates the sea change underway in our city. Thanks to ADA 25 Chicago, Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium (CCAC) and other initiatives, cultural organizations are increasingly recognizing that accessibility and inclusion is key to meet their mission.
As cultural administrators, we know the power that culture has to entertain, inspire and stimulate dialogue and new ideas. It’s moving to watch more and more of Chicago’s cultural organizations take the next steps to ensure that everyone can enjoy the power of arts and culture.