Making Art Accessible

Oregon Shakespeare Festival (photo courtesy of T. Charles Erickson )

The word “art” encapsulates such a big world, filled with ideas, emotions and beauty. But who has access to this world? To art? Technically, we all have access. But people with disabilities may only have access to certain types or elements of art. If you were blind, you might visit a museum and have a painting described to you. You may go to the theater or a dance performance and rely on the words and the music. If you were deaf, you might attend the same performances and appreciate the costumes or the movement. Or, as a person in a wheelchair, you may see barriers to physical accessibility especially in some of the smaller, older theaters.

Fortunately, access to art is starting to evolve. Sean Forbes, a deaf musician, got hooked on music at a young age, describing it as a feeling. His goal has been to make the industry more accessible to an audience with hearing disabilities. This means vibrant music videos, signed and closed-captioned lyrics, and an emphasis on beat and vibration in his work. Artists like Forbes are making music that’s more than sound, it’s an experience.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival provides a genuine and accessible theater experience for everyone. The company offers in-theater services for people with disabilities, and is constantly looking to improve and expand. Just to give you some numbers: In 2011 the festival captioned 39 performances using a caption board, distributed 10,000 assistive listening devices, had 9 plays sign-interpreted, and audio-described 100 performances for blind and visually impaired audience members. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is now the most accessible classical festival in the country, and its members have been asked to work with theaters state-wide to increase accessibility.

Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) recently opened an exhibit displaying paintings by Judith Snow, an artist with quadriplegia. Captioned videos and photos showed how Snow created her artwork. A descriptive audio recording and a tactile book were provided to visitors who were blind – the book included Braille and raised-line drawings. This exhibit came to life for all patrons, and allowed everyone to share Snow’s work.

So how does accessibility change the art world? It allows more people to create and experience art. It encourages people to express new ideas. It allows for new voices to be heard. At the end of the day, art is the same. It is the expression of creativity and imagination. But the community of artists and art-lovers is growing; the art is evolving.

Other industries may look at the art industry as an example of what is possible, as we begin to see a more accessible world.


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