CLEVELAND, Ohio — Laura Gold, the community services specialist at the nonprofit Services for Independent Living, was thrilled in 2018 when Cleveland Play House offered open-caption performances of “Shakespeare in Love.”
Open captions enabled Gold, who is deaf, to follow the action on stage without holding a script and a flashlight in her lap and bobbing her head up and down for hours.
“At last, a well-known and well-respected theater in Cleveland, Ohio, was jumping on the open captioning bandwagon,” she writes in a new report from Arts Cleveland, the nonprofit education and advocacy organization, on access to the arts for persons with disabilities in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County.
Northeast Ohio enjoys a national reputation for excellence in the arts, but the needs of residents with physical and/or mental disabilities aren’t always considered, the report states.
Problems could be addressed through better staff training, more attention to transportation, and greater sensitivity to people who attend cultural events with personal assistants, or parents of children living with disabilities, the report states.
The arts-and-culture sector is doing a generally doing a good job for people with disabilities, and “facilities are generally welcoming,” the report found. But conditions could and should be improved.
“The idea is not to fix people with disabilities, but to build a society that includes those people, people who have challenges, and to give them the same access that anyone else has,” said Valerie Schumacher, acting manager and director of Arts Cleveland.
Available on the Arts Cleveland website at artscleveland.org, the report was funded with a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, plus $13,000 in local matching money.
The report estimates that roughly 63,000 Cleveland residents and 135,000 in Cuyahoga County have disabilities.
“What if you want to catch a play, but you’re deaf, and the production doesn’t offer sign- language interpretation?” the report asks. “Or you’re blind, and no audio description is available of what’s happening on stage? Or you navigate life via wheelchair, and the venue doesn’t have open seating space?
“What if you’re an artist with a disability who, in addition to coping with one or more of the barriers mentioned above, has to fight to be seen as an artist, not as a person with a disability?”
According to the report, the issue of access to arts and culture for people with disabilities is widespread and often invisible.
“People with disabilities regularly feel excluded from the general conversation around diversity and inclusion,” it says.
Arts Cleveland originally planned to release the report in July, to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but postponed that plan because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ironically, the pandemic benefited persons with disabilities by forcing cultural organizations to move programming online after the temporary stay-at-home order issued by Ohio in March made physical attendance at events impossible.
The shift “serendipitously resulted in greater access for people with disabilities as arts and culture finds a new home in the digital realm,” the report says.
But the report exhorts cultural leaders not to return to the “old normal.” It advocates retaining online programming, while pushing for improvements for people with disabilities.
The report’s title, “Open Caption: Rethinking Accessibility in Cleveland’s Arts and Culture,” refers to the practice of including captions in live performances, or in video or online programming without requiring viewers to opt in by activating closed captions.
Based on a survey of 84 county residents and interviews with another 16, the report finds that:
· Staging cultural events in older buildings that can’t be adapted to ADA standards might exclude attendees.
· Compliance with ADA standards needs to be improved and made uniform.
· Events need to be marketed far enough in advance to enable individuals with disabilities to plan their outings.
· Venues need to provide information about accessibility services routinely, along with contact information for questions.
· Customer service training on accessibility and accommodations should be improved and made universal.
· People with disabilities should be consulted on questions of access.
Among other things, the report recommends that cultural organizations should consider access for people with disabilities as part of their plans to improve racial, social and economic diversity, equity and inclusion.
Improving conditions for people with disabilities doesn’t need to be expensive, Schumacher said.
“Probably there are small things that everyone can do to improve accessibility in the arts,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking before anything gets done. It can be incremental.”