Students from Rosboro Middle School/Heights HS youth group taking off tape for street painting.
Making programs and services accessible is an important goal. This article outlines a do-it-yourself approach for arts and cultural organizations to plan for disability access that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act can feel daunting if you’re just starting out. So many checklists to consult! So many webinars to attend! So little buy-in at the top of the organization! But it only takes a little time, training, and creativity to get started on this journey.
Whether you’re just beginning to center inclusion for people with disabilities or you’re ready to level-up your efforts, this article outlines a do-it-yourself approach to planning for disability access that works for large and small cultural organizations. The DIY ADA Access Planning workbook (linked at the bottom) is a tool that kickstarts the process of developing an ADA Access Plan right fitted for your organization.
What is accessibility?
“Accessibility” means the state in which a person with a disability is afforded the same opportunity as someone without a disability. When your products, programs, or services are accessible, someone with any disability can enjoy the same experience, interactions, and ease of use as anyone else. They will receive information in a way they understand and make independent choices that reflect their preferences. An accessible environment also integrates the experiences of people with and without disabilities. For example, a space is not truly accessible if people using wheelchairs are forced to use a separate entrance to access the space.
What is an ADA Plan?
Passed by Congress in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the United States’ first comprehensive civil rights law addressing the needs of people with disabilities and prohibiting discrimination in employment, public services, public accommodations, and telecommunications. Cultural organizations are generally covered under the “public accommodations” section of the ADA. A “public accommodation” is any institution or private business offering goods and services to the public. Basically, if you offer anything to the public, you are required to provide equal access to what you offer.
To ensure access, the ADA requires entities to identify and remove barriers to equal participation. Many organizations do this by creating an “ADA Plan” or “Access Plan.” This sounds formal, but don’t let that stop you from starting the process! Broadly, an ADA plan is a simple document describing an organization’s plan to comply with the ADA––it doesn’t need to follow a particular format or require specific expertise ahead of time.
Accessibility planning has three key stages: Audit, Plan, and Coordinate.
Conducting an accessibility audit means engaging in a thoughtful structured review of your organization’s strategies to address access barriers. This review process will often include a physical audit, which is the process of tracing the path participants navigate through the built environment to identify potential barriers. Many organizations, especially small arts organizations, do not have their own buildings, but there is often a physical place or places where they make and share their work. A rented venue, an office, a rehearsal room––these are all spaces that could be the focus of a physical audit.
However, just as the physical aspects are only part of your work, a physical audit is only one component of a thorough review. A comprehensive audit will consider how people learn about, engage with, and benefit from your goods and services. An audit should consider ways that people with various kinds of disabilities may encounter barriers to engagement. It is important to note that not all people who experience disability identify as disabled, many consider what others might call a disability to be simply belonging on a spectrum of difference and not automatically an impairment. An accessible environment makes space for all differences; however someone identifies, rather than privileging those considered most “normal” or “typical.” Broadly, disabilities may manifest in one or more of these categories:
- Sensory: Impairments or differences in how someone senses the world. Blindness, for example, is a sensory disability.
- Mobility, Flexibility, & Body Structure: Impairments or differences in how a body interacts with the environment. Individuals who use mobility devices and those with dwarfism could be included in this category.
- Cognitive: Impairments or differences related to developmental, intellectual, and social skills. Cognitive disabilities are the most common, and may include people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. People with Down Syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder, and dementia could be included in this category.
- Communication: Impairments or differences in how someone communicates to others. People with fluency disorders (like stuttering), and those who do not speak aloud (such as those with muteness), could be included in this category.
- Psychological / Psychiatric: A wide range of impairments or differences related to emotional and behavioral states. Individuals with anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia are included in this category.
Once you have identified the barriers, the process continues with developing a plan to address them. First, you will generate solutions. Solutions could include making simple changes, like moving furniture to ensure pathways are wide enough for a wheelchair. They may also involve taking the first steps to address more complex needs, such as offering sign language interpretation for upcoming events. Determining the right solution may require you to conduct your own research to determine if others have found ways to address the same issue, craft your own strategy, or seek additional expertise. Generating solutions to address barriers can be a deeply creative act that plays to the strengths of artists and arts organizers.
Not all great ideas can be implemented right away, so once solutions are generated, you will then need to prioritize them. Which ideas will become your immediate priorities to implement? Which opportunities will need some additional time, effort, or resources to bring to life? Once prioritized, the solutions will need to be framed as accomplishable goals, with specific people assigned to tasks on a clear timeline.
The final element of access planning is coordinating the execution of the plan. In addition to implementing the solutions identified as priorities, this also means revisiting the plan to make sure goals are being reached and adapting that plan as necessary. Access planning is an ongoing and evolving process because people and their needs are always changing. Building in time to check progress and make necessary adjustments will lead to better outcomes.
Pro tip: A key part of coordinating your plan is leaving space to respond to new needs for access solutions.
I often tell groups that you know your work is successful when you start getting more complaints. As more people begin engaging in your work because you eliminate barriers, the more that additional needs will come to your attention. It’s not that these needs didn’t exist before, but now that you have built a foundation, people will begin to trust you enough to let you know how they want to participate.
Using the Workbook
I designed the DIY ADA Access Planning Workbook to guide you through the process of accessibility planning in a way that can work for many different types of organizations and individuals. Regardless of the size or sophistication of the organization, the workbook is built around those fundamental stages: Audit, Plan, and Coordinate.
To be most impactful, I encourage you to work with a team of people to complete the workbook, ideally from various levels and perspectives within your organization. Although it could be done by one person, the real work of access planning is figuring out how to get on the same page. The completed workbook, in the end, is a product that represents the work of finding common understanding and negotiating the plan into place. It begins the process of embracing a culture of access.
Access thinking is the habit of considering the fullness of human abilities and disabilities in everyday choices. When multiple people within an organization become involved in access thinking, you are developing a culture of access, the collective ability to embed access thinking into a group’s habitual way of working.
Embracing the Social Model of Disability for Arts Organizations
I organize the conceptual work of access planning in The ADA Access Planning Workbook around “Categories of Access.” These categories are:
- Accessibility Policies
- Access Planning & Resources
- Physical & Architectural Access
- Communications & Outreach
- Accessible Programs & Services
Each section of the Workbook relates to a category. In each category, there are a set of prompting questions, with spaces below for Current Strategies, Short-Term Goals, Long-Term Goals, and Known Barriers.
For each category, you will begin the Audit stage of the process by simply reflecting on the accessibility strategies you currently employ, and the barriers that people with disabilities might face when engaging with your organization.
1. Read the prompting questions.
2. Reflect on whether your organization does these things now. If you do, document that as a Current Effort. If not, reflect on how that might present a barrier to participation, and document it in Known Barriers.
It’s important to document only what is already happening in the Current Efforts section –– what you plan to do will come later. The first step grounds you in what access strategies you are sustaining with your current resources. Although it can be uncomfortable, capturing a snapshot of barriers that exist is how you start the process, even if you cannot address them right away. Along with the Workbook is a supplemental resource (“Identifying Barriers & Setting Goals,” download available at the end of the article) that helps you think through barriers people with disabilities might encounter.
Supplement in Brief: An audit will investigate barriers to participation. How might participants face barriers related to…?
- Sensory Experience: …seeing, hearing, or engaging emotionally with activities?
- Mobility: …getting to, entering, navigating, and gaining access to key amenities in a space?
- Communication: …learning about your offerings, accessing and understanding content, and requesting assistance to participate?
- Knowledge: …a lack of awareness or training by leaders about how to make experiences accessible?
For example, one question asks, “Does the organization have a named accessibility coordinator?” If your organization has not named an accessibility coordinator, that could present a barrier of Knowledge, as someone is not tasked with ensuring access needs are part of a group’s ongoing work.
The next part of the process has you Plan by developing goals and prioritizing those goals.
1. Develop Goals to address any Known Barriers.
2. Prioritize those Goals.
The prompting questions themselves may provide a possible solution. In the previous example, an organization without a named accessibility coordinator might find that the solution may be to name one. In other cases, you may need to find solutions beyond your own knowledge. There is a wealth of online resources you can consult, some of which are listed at the end of this article. You may also consider pulling in additional assistance from people, such as members of an access advisory committee or individuals with disabilities who are interested in participating. In those cases, it is best practice to compensate them for their time and expertise.
In the same supplementary resource that assists with identifying barriers is a section about how to set effective goals related to your solutions. There are also considerations about how to approach prioritizing your goals. While the ADA has some specific guidance, my experience with smaller arts and cultural organizations has taught me that it’s most important to prioritize what your community is already asking you to address.
With your prioritized goals in place, the final stage is to Coordinate.
1. Assign and implement next steps.
Effective goals have a specific person assigned to ensure the goal is implemented. While there is often a single person or small community of people in an organization championing accessibility work, the best plans are created and then executed by a broader community of individuals. While you should name an access coordinator, I often advise that their primary role is to facilitate the creation and oversight of the plan. They should not be responsible for making it all happen. One person can get tasks completed, but it takes all of us to make real change happen.
2. Revisit! Celebrate! Revise!
On a regular basis, your team should return to this plan to check in on its progress. Making the check-in process part of your typical cycles of planning ensures that your plan will be a living document. Consider putting the ADA Access Plan onto your regular staff and board meeting agendas, carving out time at the beginning of production meetings, and in your event post-mortems. If something has been accomplished, take a moment to celebrate! If progress has stalled, consider if the goal itself, or the approach to accomplishing the goal, could be revised. Every one to three years, consider refreshing the plan entirely to reflect changes to your organization.
Congratulations on taking some big steps forward on your accessibility journey!
Resources for Download
Are you feeling inspired? It’s time to try it out using the worksheets and supplements that make up the DIY ADA Access Planning Workbook. Each worksheet is available in two formats. The PDFs are print-ready and a good option to fill out by hand. The Word Document is fully editable if you wish to type directly into the Workbook.
Accessibility in the Arts: A Promise and A Practice
Job Accommodation Network
A resource focused on employment but full of helpful information to understand specific strategies to provide accommodations for all kinds of disabilities.
Disability as Diversity Programming Toolkit
A series of interactive presentations about various disability topics from (Southwest ADA Center Regional Affiliate – Arkansas) that can be presented to groups interested in exploring disability as part of their IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, & Accessibility) work.
Accessibility Resources for Arts Organizations
Online resources that Metropolitan Regional Arts Council staff have compiled to assist groups in becoming more accessible to participants of all abilities. Resources are grouped according to topics, and in general favor tactical resources (you can take action on them right away) specific to small arts organizations.