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Envisioning Change

The Future Is Inclusive

The global pandemic has highlighted societal injustices and devastated the arts. It has forced organizations to pause and reflect, providing people with a challenge and the opportunity to redesign theatre with equity and inclusion in mind. However, there’s a tendency to think about recreating what we once had instead of seizing the opportunity to create new accessible—and therefore more inclusive—practices. Will we simply try to retrace our steps to get our theatres up and running, or will we deliberately choose a new path and cover new ground?

Most theatres, unfortunately, don’t incorporate accessibility into their policies, procedures, and events—and haven’t since their beginnings. They often say they are committed to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), but the relationship between accessibility and inclusion is often not recognized. How can something truly be inclusive if it’s not also accessible? If a so-called inclusive event or program is not accessible then disabled people are excluded.

In order to create theatre that is more inclusive, we need to consider how inclusive design can be used to change organizations and the work being produced. As an accessibility consultant, I’ve learned that it’s always best to think about accessibility in anything being done as early as possible. As a dramaturg, I’ve learned the generative potential of asking questions—the right question can be the spark that lights the creative fire. During this time of upheaval, organizations and theatre artists can benefit from thinking more like dramaturgs and designers to reimagine what our art can be.

A production photo of three actors in front of projections

Photo from Sound Theatre Company’s production of peeling in 2019. Pictured are actors Michelle Mary Schaefer, Sydney Maltese, and Carolyn Agee. Photo by Ken Holmes.

Universal Design, Inclusive Design, and Accessibility

First, it’s helpful to discuss a few terms as they apply to design. “Universal design,” “inclusive design,” and “accessibility” are terms that are closely related and are often intertwined.

Accessibility is an attribute that pertains to an ability to access. It often means taking a preexisting structure that works for nondisabled people and designing an accommodation for disabled and Deaf people.

Universal design is “the design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

Inclusive design is “design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference.”

In some parts of the world, the term “inclusive design” is used interchangeably with universal design. But the basic distinction between the two methodologies is that universal design tends to be a one-size-fits-all approach while inclusive design recognizes that one size fits some, but not all. Inclusive design is not about designing one solution but considering a diversity of solutions. However, inclusive design can incorporate universal design and aims to be accessible. For someone with a design challenge, even just shifting from using the word “universal” to using “inclusive” helps them to think more about being responsive to human differences rather than searching for that one perfect solution.

The basic distinction between the two methodologies is that universal design tends to be a one-size-fits-all approach while inclusive design recognizes that one size fits some, but not all.

In order for theatremakers to effectively use inclusive design, it’s necessary to understand the basics of universal design. Universal design is most commonly associated with the built environment and products. Nevertheless, it provides a useful foundation for considering how a design is going to be used. Universal design is based on seven principles:

  1. Equitable use
  2. Flexibility in use
  3. Simple, intuitive use
  4. Perceptible information
  5. Tolerance for error
  6. Low physical effort
  7. Size and space for approach and use

These principles can be applied to various fields. For example, when universal design is applied to education, the results are multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiple means of action and expression. Principles one and two come up with “multiple means of engagement”—this might mean there are multiple options for completing assignments, flexible learning environments, and text materials in both digital and audio format. In theatre, this could mean programming that includes virtual and in-person events and podcasts with written transcripts.

Inclusive Design for a More Inclusive Organization

By drawing from the above principles and considering the full range of human diversity, inclusive design can be used to redesign organizations. It leads to intuitive strategies that can create a more welcoming environment.

For any design project, an inclusive design approach must begin by examining the design team to ensure diversity is represented. It’s difficult to design inclusive solutions without the input of diverse participants. Applying that to redesigning organizations means examining the people within the organization. Start by asking the question: Are people with disabilities, people from different racial and ethnic groups, men and women, young and old people, and other groups represented throughout the organization in numbers proportional to the community? This include staff, artists, production team, board of directors, and anyone else involved in the organization. If an organization isn’t diverse, the first step is to hire the people who will bring this necessary diversity.

Another question that’s important to ask is: Is diversity represented on the marketing materials, the website, and in the audiences who attend performances? People tend to feel more welcome in environments where they can see people who are like them, either in the audience or involved with the organization. As a disabled artist, I’m not interested in collaborating with an organization that hasn’t bothered to create a space where someone like me feels welcome. When I go to a performance and don’t see any disabled people in the audience or involved with the production, I feel out of place and start to wonder about the organization. Do they have an ableist workplace? Have they not made an effort to be accessible? An organization that values inclusion should be visibly inclusive.

When I go to a performance and don’t see any disabled people in the audience or involved with the production, I feel out of place and start to wonder about the organization. Do they have an ableist workplace? Have they not made an effort to be accessible?

Websites are increasingly receiving more scrutiny as an indication of inclusivity. The Department of Justice has long considered websites to be a digital extension of an entity’s physical property and, therefore, covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). For this reason, websites should already be accessible (here’s a great article to start with). The next step beyond the minimum requirements is to evaluate the website using the principles of universal design (here’s another great article). Applying principle four from above, information about accessibility should be posted in an easy-to-find location. A “know before you go” page is always a helpful way to provide accessibility information before a person travels to a building or site. As always, images should reflect the diversity within the organization.

Operational policies and procedures should be designed to ensure equitable access for people with disabilities, as well as for other groups. This includes providing printed materials in alternative formats to provide effective communication for patrons and artists. Information for patrons should be simple and easy to understand (principles three and four). Services, events, and activities should be accessible and usable by all to allow full participation. Staff members and volunteers who will interact with patrons need to be familiar with the availability of alternative materials. They also need to know how to respond to requests for accommodations and know how to respectfully communicate with people of different backgrounds, ages, and people with disabilities.

There are many more avenues to explore, such as strategic planning, questioning inequitable power dynamics, experimenting with different leadership models, and examining structures. Accessibility must be part of all those conversations. Inclusion and accessibility must not be treated as separate issues that can be addressed at different times. When a diverse staff that includes people with disabilities is involved in decision-making and the work of redesigning organizations, they can ensure that accessibility is included.

A brightly colored word cloud in the shape of a flower. Words like reimagine, reinvigorate, recreate, and regenerate in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple form petals that swirl in a clockwise direction.

Original word art by the author, entitled The Energizing Potential of Re-. Also known as “back to the drawing board.”

Inclusive Design for Artistic Programming

While organizations are undoubtably an important component in creating an inclusive ecosystem, it’s crucial to consider the art itself and the choices theatremakers can make to create work that is more inclusive. Inclusive work incorporates diverse perspectives and lived experiences in the creative and production teams. For a work to be inclusive, it needs to be designed to engage with the widest spectrum of people with diverse abilities possible.

One way to do this is by integrating audio description (text that describes the action, abbreviated as AD) and captions into the piece as it is written. Often provided as an afterthought for disabled and Deaf patrons, audio descriptions and captions aren’t usually thought of as enhancing a production. Kaite O’Reilly’s groundbreaking play peeling is an excellent example of a play that experiments with this: audio description is woven into the dialogue and captions are integrated into the production as a design aesthetic. Because accessibility was written into the script, the various techniques shaped the visual and aural experience of attending a performance.

For a work to be inclusive, it needs to be designed to engage with the widest spectrum of people with diverse abilities possible.

In a similar innovative spirit, Clay & Paper Theatre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada created an alternative AD approach that became an integral part of their creative process. The research paper “Inclusive Design, Audio Descriptions, and Diversity of Theatre Experiences” discusses their AD approach and the end result. Actors, script writers, musicians, and directors were involved in the process of incorporating AD into the script and musical soundscape. A sensory tour was also given before the show to allow blind/low-vision audience members and other diverse audience members to interact with the production elements. Cast members found the AD process to be personally beneficial and the audience was enthusiastically receptive. Integrated audio description enriched the piece and, along with the sensory tour, created enjoyable experiences for all. The techniques used to provide accessibility were inclusive to diverse audience members.

A more recent example of inclusive practices in theatre productions is La Jolla Playhouse’s 2020 Performance Outreach Program (POP) for California schools. Presented in partnership with National Disability Theatre, Emily Driver's Great Race Through Time and Space by A. A. Brenner and Gregg Mozgala would have visited schools throughout San Diego county. (Performances were cancelled in March shortly after their launch due to the pandemic.) Written for a multigenerational audience, the show centers an inclusive cast of disabled actors. The creative and production teams, also comprised of disabled artists, used their lived experiences to help root the story and find creative solutions to design challenges, such as how to create a Ford Mustang onstage using wheelchairs. Additionally, the actors gave visual descriptions during the pre-show speech and audio descriptions were incorporated into the sound design.

Inclusive design generates many exciting possibilities, including the prospect of theatrical events where disabled people won’t have to request accommodations because accessibility has already been addressed. And instead of thinking about captioning, audio description, and sensory tours as primarily for disabled people, realize that they can create immersive experiences for everyone. I want theatre organizations and artists to think about radically transforming their work to meet the needs of audience members and how that can help welcome new audiences. When accessibility is a standard practice—when it is embraced as an essential objective—the result will be more inclusive. Theatre productions can foster a deeper appreciation and understanding of the richness of human diversity.

The Future Is Accessible

In 2017, disability activist Annie Segarra created a social campaign called “The Future is Accessible.” It is a call to prioritize accessibility and equity while uplifting the lives of disabled people. It’s also a demand for recognizing the importance of visibility and the intersectional identities of disabled people. For me, the phrase is a beacon of hope—hope that there will be a future where people will recognize that disability justice is inseparable from racial justice, queer justice, and environmental justice.

I envision a future where there are accessible options for theatregoers to engage in both virtual and in-person events. A future where accessibility is so intrinsic to our work that theatremakers automatically think about who can access what we are creating and how they will be able to do so. A future where organizations recognize accessibility as a core value along with equity, diversity, and inclusion, and where the depths of their commitment to these core values is apparent in everything they do. A future where there are widespread productions with integrated accessibility to amplify inclusion.

Accessibility has to be part of a theatremaker’s mindset and an organization’s internal culture in order to create inclusive environments and practices. The goal must be to create welcoming experiences. Using inclusive design, both organization and artists can change the theatre industry and transform their work to connect more fully and more meaningfully with everyone.

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Thank you for explaining the differences between inclusive design and universal design! Some organizations do use them interchangeably and it can be confusing.