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Let's Talk About the "A" Word

By Martha Newman Collins

Accessibility. Stop - before the words separate, different and costly come to mind. Think about this: A universal environment for the arts.

A universal, or inclusive, environment for the arts is one everyone can use - people with and without disabilities and people of all ages. In such an environment, buildings and grounds, communication systems and programming are open to everyone. Places and products can be designed to work better for all of us. Why ask ourselves how to construct a ramp for one group of people and a staircase for another? We should ask how to create an entrance that all our patrons can use.

When federal legislation required public institutions to make it possible for people with disabilities to use their programs and services, we saw the development of what are now commonplace architectural features, curb cuts and ramps being the most familiar. Interestingly, the design elements originally developed for people with disabilities were adopted by people without disabilities. Ramps are used by people pushing strollers or making deliveries.

Why a universal environment for the arts? It's the law. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires arts organizations to make their programs, services, activities and employment accessible to qualified persons with disabilities. ADA is based on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. In the coming months ArtWorks will feature resources and links that will be helpful to you. Available now from the Arts Section is The Arts and 504: A Handbook for Accessible Arts Programming, a publication by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Some helpful websites are: ADA Home Page (, The National Arts and Disability Center ( and The NEA Office of AccessAbility (

Why a universal environment? It's an opportunity.

A universal environment does not end with accessibility but reaches beyond it to usability. Accessibility and usability are not responses to an individual's special request but an organizational asset. One of the major challenges for arts organizations is audience development. Here are some things worth knowing about your audience:

Universal planning recognizes that we are all different - that we have different ways of doing things and different preferences about how we get information and communicate. It creates an environment where programs and exhibits reflect a commitment to being part of an inclusive community. The West Virginia Division of Culture and History and the West Virginia Commission on the Arts have such a commitment.

All grant requests for the program year 2003 will require you to address accessibility thoroughly. You (the legal authority to obligate the applicant) will be required to either give assurances that your project/program/facility is accessible and in full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or submit a transition plan indicating how and when you will be in compliance. Specifics will be made available. All applicants receiving support from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts/National Endowment for the Arts are expected to comply with Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the ADA of 1990.

Where do you start? Carefully evaluate your facility and programs using the Arts Accessibility Checklist (NEA). The checklist is available from the Arts Section. You are not in this alone. Seek advice and help. Realize that there are inexpensive, unobtrusive steps you can take right now that will make a workable, respectful environment for everyone in your community.

There are resources to help your organization interpret and put into action steps that will allow you to offer the arts to your whole community. The Advisory Committee on Access, currently being formed, will be a valuable resource to you. The Peer Assistance Network has two new advisors, Genny Zbach and Colleen Reed, who have experience and knowledge of accessibility issues. Contact Debbie Rainey-Haught, Community Arts Coordinator at 304- 558-0220, ext. 714 for more information about Peer Assistance.

Your commitment to accessiblitiy must be an institutional commitment, and the effort to achieve inclusiveness must be organization-wide. In addition to your personnel, your greatest resources are your audience and patrons. Bring together people with and without disabilities, of different ages and from different constituencies in the community. Ask them what you can do to better serve everyone.

Contact your 504/ADA Coordinator at 304- 558-0220 for more information.

ArtWorks appreciates permission from the New York State Council on the Arts to use excerpts from Beyond Access to Opportunity.