Creating Community for All
As I began my work as the accessibility coordinator for the 2017 Folklife Festival, I noted that the concepts of acceptance, inclusivity, and possibility were deeply ingrained in the fabric of the featured programs, Circus Arts and On the Move: Migration Across Generations—concepts that align directly with the core tenets of accessibility.
True accessibility happens when it is part of structural and programmatic design from the beginning—rather than an add-on or afterthought. The process involves the “basics” of scheduling and supporting services such as American Sign Language interpretation, real-time captioning, and audio description. It requires working closely with the operations and technical teams to account for the wide range of abilities of visitors as they design and build our site. It entails educating staff and volunteers so they will know how to answer questions when they arise.
However, beyond the tangible elements, accessibility is about making sure everyone knows they are welcome and have belonging and “membership” within a community—in this case, the community of the Festival. Through this work, we strive to create a mindset that elevates the idea of accessibility to move past mere accommodation and into inclusion. This includes extending an invitation to the disability community through direct outreach and making sure that accessibility information is included in all public resources. The message of inclusion continues onsite through signage, staff and volunteer support, and program design that not only outlines available resources but sends a clear message that everyone is part of our community.
Even as we support a vision of total inclusion, we recognize that special programming can extend a welcome to those who might initially hesitate to attend the Festival. Specialized experiences can potentially provide a safe space for individuals and families to engage, and perhaps even a transition into the main Festival programming. Two special programs for this year’s Festival included “Circus of the Senses” and “Morning at the Mall.”
“Circus of the Senses” is a program created by the Big Apple Circus, providing a multidimensional experience for those who are blind/low-vision, D/deaf or hard-of hearing, or have cognitive/developmental disabilities. Under the Festival’s Big Top, they worked with Circus Juventas for their Wonderland performance to feature ASL interpretation and live audio description; Big Apple founders Paul Binder and Michael Christensen’s description not only provided a visual play-by-play of the show but also explained elements of circus performance. Afterward, Juventas performers and Festival staff welcomed visitors into the ring for a “touch tour”: experiencing costumes and props through tactile exploration.
Hosted annually in partnership with the Smithsonian Accessibility Program, “Morning at the Mall” presents a sensory-friendly experience for individuals with autism, sensory sensitivities, or other cognitive disabilities who may benefit from a more relaxed environment and pre-visit materials. This year, we welcomed thirty-eight families to see performances and try out crafts and circus skills such as juggling.
At the core of this event is an invitation for individuals to simply be—no matter if they need extra time or space, a different way to engage, or the freedom to respond verbally or physically in their own way. Families expressed gratitude for this supportive atmosphere, and many Festival participants said it allowed them to connect more deeply with visitors and find a common ground of exploration and celebration.
Both specialized programs and the provision of accessibility services can create entry points for those who might not traditionally attend certain cultural events—assuming “that’s not for me” or “that’s not my community.” As I researched this year’s Festival participants, I found that many expressed how their art had helped them find their own sense of belonging within a community—a community that welcomed them for their authentic self, while valuing and validating their individual voice.
These sentiments parallel our ongoing commitment to accessibility and inclusion within the Festival, ultimately making sure that the invitation to join the story we create is extended to all.
Diane Nutting is the accessibility coordinator for the 2017 Folklife Festival. Her work at the intersections of disability, arts, and education includes nearly twenty-five years of collaboration with a wide range of cultural arts organizations to develop and support accessibility and creative empowerment for students, patrons, staff, and artists of all abilities.