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How TDF Advocates for Audiences With Disabilities Inside 35 seasons of TDF’s accessibility programs

by Mark Blankenship


“It’s one thing to say, ‘You have a right to go to the theatre.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘The theatre belongs to you.’” So says Victoria Bailey, Theatre Development Fund’s Executive Director, as she discusses TDF Accessibility Programs (TAP).

That sentiment defines the department, which is now in its 35th season. TAP’s most obvious goal, of course, is making sure that people with disabilities and special needs are able to attend the theatre, but underneath the practical work of getting tickets into people’s hands, there’s an urgent desire to advocate for those whom society can overlook.

“In all these years, we’ve always remained advocates, and we will continue to be advocates” says Lisa Carling, TAP’s director. “We will continue to say, ‘What can we do? How can we work together to help you have a meaningful experience at the theatre?’”

Of course, a casual observer might wonder if TAP needs to exist in 2013. After all, theatres are often legally required to offer options like listening devices or wheelchair-accessible seating. Following the letter of the law, however, is not always the same as making the theatre an inviting place for someone with a disability. As Bailey says, “”The law says that when someone asks, you have to provide accommodations. But we want to make sure people ask. We want to develop their desire to go.”

To that end, TAP’s programming is designed to create a rich artistic experience, not simply put tickets in someone’s hands. And since the department was founded, this work has grown enormously. “In 1980 we had a mailing list of 400 people,” Carling notes. “We’ve grown to a mailing list of over 12,000 people, and we have eight programs within the department.”

Those programs provide distinct experiences for the populations they serve. On the most basic level, TAP members have access to discounted, accessible seating, and since membership is free to anyone with a disability, the underlying suggestion is that everyone with special needs should feel empowered to see a show.

Specialized programs help TAP reinforce that point. Since it was founded, for instance, TAP has hosted sign interpreted performances of plays and musicals, with specially trained interpreters vibrantly translating spoken dialogue into sign language. (For many years, TAP also trained interpreters from around the country in collaboration with Julliard.)

Deaf or hard of hearing patrons can also take advantage of open captioned performances, in which the text of a play scrolls by on an electronic screen that’s placed near the stage.

In 1997, TAP hosted the first open captioned performance on Broadway, and since then, the service has become a touchstone for audiences in New York and beyond. (The national open captioning program brings training and technology to theatres throughout the United States, and the TAP Plus granting program provides funds to theatres in New York state who want to serve the deaf and hard of hearing.)

Andrea Day prepares to audio describe Wicked

Meanwhile, blind and low vision patrons are offered audio described performances, in which special earpieces let them hear trained describers explain what’s happening on stage.

Students who have hearing or vision problems are also served by Access for Young Audiences, which often sends young people to the theatre for the very first time. Whenever possible, TAP also sends a teaching artist to work with AYA students in workshops that help them know what to expect from a live performance.

People of every generation are also impacted by TAP’s newest program, the Autism Theatre Initiative. The program works with Broadway productions (and regional theatres across the country) to offer autism-friendly performances of popular shows. Certain elements of the production (intensity of light, volume of sound cues, etc.) are adjusted so they’ll be less jarring, and theatre lobbies are prepared with quiet areas and other services for people on the spectrum who need a break from the action.

Crucially, everyone in the audience of an autism friendly show, whether they’re on the spectrum or attending with someone who is, understands the needs of their fellow audience members. That helps everyone relax and know they won’t be judged for making noise or heading to the lobby in the middle of a scene. “Over and over,” Bailey says, “we’re noticing that it’s not just people on the spectrum who seem to be enjoying themselves at these shows. It’s everyone in their families.We hadn’t anticipated how much of a ‘family day out’ these performances would become’”

And that, of course, underscores TAP’s deeper purpose. This month alone, it will send almost 3,000 people to the theatre, and with any luck, those people will either discover or expand their love of live performance. They’ll be reminded that the theatre is for them.