The arts have always played a major role in the history of mankind, and there are studies by the thousands stating how we—as individuals and as communities—benefit from having access to painting, literature, music, performances and more. But the arts may not be inclusive and available to all aspects of our society.
“Art has always been integral to humanity’s ongoing quest to understand itself. The creative sector provides a wealth of benefits, one of these being the arts’ unique ability to help us understand ourselves and to provide a lens through which to investigate our collective existence,” said Norah G. Johnson, director of external affairs & public awareness, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.
Like many aspects of our community, however, the arts component is becoming more aware of the importance of inclusiveness. Venues are making it easier for those with disabilities to attend and participate in performances while more doors are being opened for those with disabilities to perform. And these are important improvements.
“Art reflects and represents real life; in order to do this accurately, the reflection must encompass everyone within a society, thus representation and accessibility are integral to ensuring that the reflections we see in all types of art are true to life,” said Johnson.
Inclusiveness in the arts is also valuable to those who participate in various roles. “Another benefit of the arts is the opportunity for the reliable provision of safe spaces for belonging and exploration. Representation by people with disabilities in a variety of roles within the arts—whether as artists, actors, producers, choreographers, dancers, singers, designers, or a host of other roles—is critical to expanding our collective narrative and providing a deeper and fuller understanding of one another,” Johnson said.
The Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council is seeing more organizations that are providing sensory-friendly programming, along with access to assistive listening devices, ASL interpreters, large print programs and live stream viewings, according to Kristen Wishon, senior director of external affairs.
“Accessibility is increasingly becoming a priority for arts organizations locally and nationally,” she said. But availability to accessibility technologies and resources can be a barrier for arts organizations, Wishon explained. The council assists by providing accessibility equipment at no cost to arts organizations.
Like Johnson, Wishon said that the arts programs that incorporate people with disabilities in all phases of programming create a more authentic community connection. “People with disabilities constitute the largest minority group in the United States, making up an estimated 20 percent of the total population,” she explained. “It is a diverse group, crossing lines of age, ethnicity, gender, race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status.”
As improvements are made for accessibility and representation of those with disabilities in the arts, it is indeed at the forefront to many in the field, Wishon said. In its 2022 report, Impact to Insight: Findings from the Arts Community Survey, the council asked both artists and cultural workers at arts organizations to identify issues that the arts community must address for a healthy future.
“Accessibility was mentioned by both groups as a primary priority for the arts community,” Wishon said.
Prime Stage Theatre has always placed a priority on inclusion in its 26-year history, according to Debra Sciranka, PR director/accessibility coordinator. “Prime Stage stands out as the region’s only theater company to attain Certified Sensory Inclusive (CSI) status through KultureCity, a leading nonprofit recognized nationwide for using its resources to affect change for those with sensory needs,” she said.
“One in six individuals has a sensory need or an invisible disability. This includes individuals with PTSD, autism, dementia, and strokes, just to name a few,” she continued. “Certification includes continuous training of employees, special considerations for sensory inclusive performances and sensory bags available to patrons.” All of Prime Stage Theatre’s productions are also available with audio description and sign language interpretation.
As part of the theatre’s dedication to making performances accessible to all, they have employees who are committed to supporting the priority of inclusion. “Prime Stage and our staff audio describer, Nathan Ruggles, received the American council of the Blind 2022 Achievement Award in Audio Description, an initiative of the council’s Audio Description Project,” Sciranka said.
Sciranka serves as the accessibility coordinator. “I work to develop and strengthen relationships with organizations and communities that work with special needs individuals in the Pittsburgh area. These collaborative relationships help Prime Stage Theatre to continually refine and improve how they make their performances accessible to all,” she said.
Recently, one of Prime Stage’s productions, Mockingbird, told the story of a young girl on the autism spectrum. “The actress who played this girl was on the autistic spectrum herself. We consulted with several autism organizations during the production to remain true to how the role was portrayed,” Sciranka said.
The Tull Family Theater (Lindsay Theater and Cultural Center), located in Sewickley, has the mission “to strengthen cultural, educational and entertainment experiences in the region northwest of Pittsburgh.” Carolina Pais-Bareto Thor, chief executive officer of the theater, explained, “Being accessible—a hallmark of the theater—encompasses lowering barriers for those with a range of special needs, as well as those who face geographic, transportation and economic challenges.”
The theater made Pennsylvania cinematic history in 2021, becoming the first in the state to show each film on every screen with open captions. “This pilot’s success, praised by schools and hearing loss support groups, led to Open Caption Wednesdays becoming a staple of the theater’s offerings, an option for those who are hard of hearing, deaf, nonnative speakers and young readers as well as the general public,” Pais-Bareto Thor said.
Tull pioneered sensory friendly cinematic screenings shortly after they opened in 2017, working with various groups serving youth to accomplish suitable technical aspects. “For these screenings, the sound is lowered, dim house lights remain on inside the screening room throughout the film, screening room doors are left open for easy access in and out, and increased staffing enables the time to meet all patrons where they are, so each feels welcome to an enjoyable experience,” Pais-Bareto Thor said.
“Guests have shared that these sensory friendly screenings have provided them with the opportunity to experience a film together, with every family member, for the first time.”
Through a partnership with Band Together Pittsburgh, a local nonprofit that provides innovative programming, experiences, and vocational opportunities to enhance the lives of those on the autism spectrum, the theater has become one of the most popular locations outside the city for free autism-friendly open mic sessions. “These events in the theater’s Community Room typically draw about 75 people, some who stay for a bit and others who spend the entire afternoon,” Pais-Bareto Thor said.
Inclusion and accessibility are top priorities for Tull. “The theater was created as a nonprofit to serve the region northwest of Pittsburgh, an area varying in race, ethnicity, gender, age, interest, and cognitive and physical abilities. Our mission will only be fulfilled through broad accessibility and full representation,” she added.