Arts Presenters/MetLife Arts Access Award
Engaging Individuals with Disabilities
Sponsored by MetLife Foundation, this award honors organizations that have been exemplary in their dedication and approach to engaging individuals with disabilities to experience and value the performing arts. This may be accomplished through programs and strategies that integrate new technologies, respond to recent demographic shifts, and/or establish an ongoing dialogue focused on individuals with sensory, cognitive, learning, developmental, and/or physical disabilities.
Quest: Arts for Everyone (2010)
QuestFest, hosted by Quest: Arts for Everyone, is a two-week international festival celebrating visual theater – a discipline of theatrical performance using movement, gesture, and digital media to tell its story, rather than spoken or signed narrative. While born as a platform for deaf and hard of hearing actors to express and explore their craft, QuestFest has evolved into a powerful advocate for theater beyond words.
While many theaters consider access issues late in the production process – adding sign language interpreters to certain shows, for example – QuestFest strives to be inclusive from the very beginning. As a result, all audiences of a QuestFest performance experience the same work at the same time, rather than an interpreted version of the work. Hearing and deaf audiences laugh together, rather than moments apart. Their shared experience is deeply shared.
Thanks to the power and passion of the approach, QuestFest performances reach well beyond deaf and hard of hearing audiences, and beyond hearing audiences. Artistic Director Tim McCarty points out that 36 percent of the population of Washington, DC, has less than basic understanding of English and therefore little direct access to spoken word theater. Visual theater allows all of these audiences to experience theater together, and from that shared experience community is born.
Because its art form reaches across boundaries, QuestFest works hard to reach out in other ways, as well. Instead of traditional advertising, Quest staff and leadership work with churches, schools, community centers and other venues to extend an invitation not just to observe but to participate. Close partnerships with other institutions – Gallaudet University, Baltimore Theatre Project, Creative Alliance, Center Stage, and others – ensure many points of access. More recently, QuestFest added a community showcase to encourage a wider range of performance opportunities on stage.
Quest: Arts for Everyone, Quest Productions, and QuestFest have defined and advanced a unique and universal form of theater expression, in close partnership with the audiences they seek to serve. Their success has made them an essential resource for other theaters, performers, and arts organizations eager to extend to a more inclusive audience, as well.
David A. Straz, Jr., Center for the Performing Arts (2010)
While many arts organizations strive to meet baseline accessibility requirements for their venues and their programs, the David A. Straz, Jr., Center for the Performing Arts (formerly the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center) committed to exceeding them – making access and openness a core value of their every action. Rather than merely lowering the barriers that can block participation by many audiences, they worked to extend an enthusiastic invitation and prepare their programs to be welcoming.
As the largest performing arts complex south of the Kennedy Center, the Straz Center recognized their leadership role in the arts community of west-central Florida. The organization’s Open Doors Program, launched in 2001 with support from the MetLife Foundation, was the catalyst for that role.
The Open Doors Committee included key members from each department, working closely with a community advisory committee and community partners. Collaboration with VSA Arts of Florida and Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind and Deaf Services Center led to expanded American Sign Language interpretations, additional infrared listening devices, and an audio season brochure. Mainstage performances by disabled artists such as Dancing Wheels ensured a positive place for all individuals in the audience and on the stage. Extensive volunteer training ensured a seamless experience for a wide range of individuals.
The full range of services include a disabilities services coordinator, a special needs phone line, handicapped and valet parking, wheelchair and companion seating, wheelchairs to lend, a designated TDD phone line in the ticket office, Braille, large print and Spanish-language signage, web pages in large print and Spanish language, a bi-lingual box office, and a large print Guide to Accessibility Services brochure with Braille contact information.
The Straz Center was also an early advocate and innovator in open captioning and audio description, both opening the live performance experience in new ways. The Center also increased the capacity of the entire arts community by training audio describers. And the center has opened its doors to guide and service dog training services, to ensure their comfort and confidence in performing arts venues.
At every step, Straz Center leadership and staff learned from community members, experts, and partner organizations. Insights and on-going advice came from a broad spectrum of agencies, including Hillsborough County ADA Liaison, University of South Florida’s Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center, St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, Children’s Cancer Center, LaVoy Exceptional Education Center, Weinberg Assisted Living Facility, MacDonald Training Center for disabled adults, Florida Institute for Community Studies, Hillsborough County Department of Aging Services and many more.
With a successful and field-defining impact on increased accessibility and inclusion, the Straz Center is now focusing on ensuring ever more robust, responsive, and sustainable programs. Frequent volunteer and staff training keeps service issues fresh. And on-going partnerships with community members continually opens new doors of understanding.