The audience around Shandra Benito was enjoying a performance that included live music and recorded audio. But she could hear only half of the show, because the two sources of sound were not merged in the assisted listening device the venue had provided.
When she was invited to a film screening at an annual festival, she called to ask if she would be able to read closed captions. The answer was no — but maybe something could be worked out the next year.
Benito, who is hard of hearing, used both experiences to educate the organizers of the Utah events. As executive director of Art Access, a nonprofit in downtown Salt Lake City, making arts events and venues welcoming to all is her mission.
“From each of those situations, those organizations have made changes to how they think about accessibility,” Benito said. “When you have a disabled executive director [raising issues], it makes it even clearer to the organization where the gaps are.”
Now she’s part of a new initiative that is asking other Utahns to point out barriers they’ve encountered while trying to attend or enjoy arts events — and working with the state’s cultural institutions to improve access for all residents.
“It’s not just about making it more accessible for people with disabilities, it’s about making it more accessible for everyone, and the entire community benefits,” Benito said.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities to attend cultural events open to the public. But the National Endowment for the Arts urges groups to go beyond technical compliance with the law to honoring its spirit — designing spaces and programs to be usable and comfortable and for the broadest spectrum of people.
That can mean providing tactile maps for a venue, including artifacts that can be touched in exhibits, using easy-to-read fonts on high contrast materials for signs or creating an uncluttered website layout.
That inclusive approach is the goal of Breaking Barriers: A Cultural Accessibility Project, a partnership between Art Access and the Utah Division of Arts & Museums. Over the next three years, staff from up to 24 of the state’s cultural institutions will be trained and mentored to improve accessibility.
They, in turn, will train others how to make concerts, plays, theaters, museums, exhibitions, workshops, festivals and other activities and venues in Utah more accessible.
‘Hoping to be a bridge’
Benito, a social worker and disability rights advocate, moved from Seattle in January 2017 to assume the leadership position at Art Access. The nonprofit provides creative opportunities — such as open studio time to receive mentoring from professional artists — and access to cultural events for people with disabilities and members of marginalized communities.
She is a trumpet player who enjoys going to performances and noticed that Utah was not as far along in providing access.
“We realized there’s a lot of room for growth and also that people seem ready and interested,” Benito said. “Through this project, we’re really hoping to be a bridge between the disability community and the arts organizations.”
The training will focus on the accessibility needs of people who are deaf, hard of hearing or deaf and blind; are blind or have low vision; have physical and mobility disabilities; are neurodiverse or have sensory disabilities; have developmental disabilities; or have learning disabilities.
Breaking Barriers has been collecting information provided by cultural organizations and by Utahns who have seen accessibility successes and gaps through an online survey. Benito has been using the feedback to help her write the training curriculum, in collaboration with the Division of Arts and Museums.
Managers of cultural venues sometimes think accommodations aren’t needed because they’re not getting requests for them, Benito said.
“I think what people don’t understand is that when you’re used to encountering barriers, after a while you just stop going,” she said.
SHARE YOUR EXPERIENCES
Breaking Barriers: A Cultural Accessibility Project is working to make events and venues throughout Utah more accessible.
Through an online survey at https://www.sltrib.com/arts-survey, it is collecting the experiences and insights of Utahs about events and locations.
Learn more about the training program and find the survey for cultural groups at https://artsandmuseums.utah.gov/breaking-barriers
The project is funded by the Katherine W. & Ezekiel R. Dumke Foundation and the Utah Division of Arts and Museums, which are providing $60,000 each. Scott Thornton, a Salt Lake City filmmaker and a Dumke Foundation board member, said the project will help expand the view of what is needed to make venues accessible.
“Disability comes in many forms,” he said. “This provides education and pathways for these venues and organizations to really evaluate how they’re serving these constituencies.”
The online survey for cultural groups asks about topics from training to technology — for example, whether they offer assisted-listening devices, audio descriptions, captions on film or American Sign Language interpreters. At the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, a grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation helped expand the number of films presented with closed-captions and provided ASL interpreters at panels.
‘Good for everyone’
The training for the first cultural groups will begin this week, and Thanksgiving Point, a farm, garden and museum complex, is one of the participants.
Lorie Millward, its vice president of possibilities, said the program will help cultural organizations that are doing a good job become even better. Museums aren’t just for people who are typically able, she added.
“We do our best and we develop exhibits and programs and our spaces to be as accessible as possible, but we don’t know what we don’t know,” Millward said. “We absolutely don’t want to assume what is and isn’t accessible.”
Arts groups, which apply for the slots, will be divided into three cohorts that meet for 15 hours over three months, followed by up to five hours of individual consultation. They will identify barriers and develop plans with short-, medium- and long-term goals.
Some of the adjustments could be made quickly, such as putting a phone number and email address to request accommodation in a prominent place on an organization’s website, Benito said.
“What’s cool about a lot of those small changes is they don’t cost money,” she said.
And changes help people of all abilities, she said. Ramps and automatic doors also are appreciated by parents pushing strollers and shoppers with carts, she pointed out.
The state arts division already had identified improved accessibility as a goal, and the project is a great opportunity to double down on that effort, said Jennifer Ortiz, museum services manager. Under the “train the trainer” component, Oritiz and Jason Bowcutt, community arts manager, will be cross-training their staff and taking the program statewide.
At Thanksgiving Point, staff continually assesses how the attraction is doing by asking patrons whether they experienced any difficulty during their visit. About 30,000 people were invited to go through its Museum of Natural Curiosity before it officially opened, to evaluate whether the space was accessible to people with physical disabilities and different learning abilities.
“That helped us to know where our opportunities in that museum were,” Millward said. “We were able to shift things around and make it as successful as possible.”
Among the accommodations is a sensory pack with headphones and stress balls to help kids with autism have a better experience.
The nonprofit took a similar approach in planning the Butterfly Biosphere, asking for suggestions from elementary school children, who wanted to see the world through the eyes of an insect. The result was a “wonderful and whimsical” venue with exhibits that everyone, including kids in wheelchairs, can see without climbing on a stepstool, Millward said.
“Designing for the greatest need ends up being good for everyone,” Millward said.