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Arts & Culture Seen Thought Leader

Accessibility Starts By Listening to What Your Patrons Need

Lara Smith (Courtesy of Dad’s Garage)

By Lara Smith, managing director of Dad’s Garage


This is a word that comes up so often in the nonprofit art world. We are asked in grant applications how “accessible” we are. We tout accessibility as a way to bring in new audiences. But what the heck does this word even mean.

The first thing many people think of when they hear “accessibility” is meeting ADA requirements. Can someone in a wheelchair come see a show and use your facilities? When we moved into our new space, a renovated church in the Old Fourth Ward, we launched an accessibility task force to audit our space. This included one of our performers who is paraplegic and uses a wheelchair to get around. What we learned is that even though our building was ADA accessible, it was by no means convenient for someone in a wheelchair. Getting from one floor to another meant going outside and up a graded sidewalk (that had more than a few potholes), which is annoying because who wants to go outside if they want to go upstairs. Especially if it was raining.

Every year at Dad’s Garage annual fundraiser festival, one of the most popular games is “wheelchair obstacle course” where guests try to maneuver through uneven terrain, and pick up small objects, and other challenges in a wheelchair. (Courtesy of Little Phish Photo)

We learned that to make your building as accessible as possible, you need to listen to people who know first hand what it’s like to navigate your space in a wheelchair. We prioritized adding an elevator, so our patrons in wheelchairs didn’t have to go outside to change floors. We repaired cracks in our sidewalk. We have special handicap accessible parking behind our building that is right next to an entrance door, so people in wheelchairs don’t have to use our big lot across the street.

Accessibility can also mean providing listening assistance devices to people who are hearing impaired, which we also provide. When someone asks if Dad’s Garage can provide sign language interpreters for a group of deaf patrons who want to come see a show, we say “Yes!”. Accessibility means going the extra mile to make sure all of your customers can enjoy a show.

There’s still one more definition of “Accessibility” I’d like to mention: artistic accessibility. Can your average patron understand and enjoy the work you produce? Some people are intimidated by the theatre, and think it is boring, hoity-toity, and inaccessible to them as consumers. If someone believes they can’t relate to or enjoy the work you produce, it is artistically inaccessible to them. The theatre we produce at Dad’s Garage is not the most highbrow fair, but it is accessible to a wide range of people. Silly laughter is something we all enjoy, and sometimes we take serious topics (like we did with the show Black Nerd) and wrap it in laughter to make them accessible. Sometimes you have to meet people where they are in terms of the content you produce. That’s accessibility.

The secret to increasing accessibility for your arts organization is to listen to your patrons, and provide them what they need to enjoy their experience. Sometimes you have to go the extra mile and fix the broken bits, but the end result are happier, more engaged patrons. Everyone wins!


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