Research Update: Assistive Technology in Performing Arts Organizations


It doesn’t take much to define “assistive technology.” Put simply, it is technology that assists people. It makes something easier to do. It helps.

Wait a minute—isn’t all technology “assistive”?

Well, yes, which is one of the reasons this broad definition can be frustrating and somewhat of a challenge. So let’s look specifically at arts organizations: assistive technology is anything that assists patrons and provides further access to an event, performance, gallery, or exhibition. Assistive technology includes:

The options are extensive for arts organizations, and vary from low tech to high tech elements. But while each of these items increases accessibility, they also pose a challenge to the venue, with cost and time as the forerunners.

What I think of as the accessibility initiative for arts organizations has moved beyond compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act to focus on removing barriers between the art and the patron. It is challenging arts organizations to keep up to date with technology in order to provide efficient access for people of all abilities. The accessibility initiative is an opportunity to understand the patrons and better accommodate their needs, thereby increasing an organization’s audience and creating a relationship with the patrons. It is an opportunity for arts managers to grow, learn, and hopefully provide a community base with the means to serve the entire community. (Hey, nobody said it was easy.)

Currently, there seems to be a split in the field. Some organizations (maybe the most notable being the Kennedy Center) have accessibility offices with staff members devoted to creating experiences for persons with disabilities. Other organizations haven’t made a significant commitment to inclusion, for whatever reason.

The obvious question at this point is why. Specifically, why is there a divide in this accessibility initiative? In the upcoming months, I hope to answer that question through research on the use of assistive technology at performing arts organizations across the United States. What is preventing organizations from providing assistive technologies in their venues? What is the cost, and what is the return on the investment? Where are the success stories, and what can we as a cohort of arts managers learn from them?

I hope to establish answers to these difficult questions through interviews with professionals working in arts accessibility, surveys of various arts organizations, and key case studies of success stories that can establish a base of common assistive technology devices used in the arts.

Won’t you come along?