Insights

Chicago Theater Makes Strides Toward Accessibility—by Putting Service First

A focus on great customer service propels #accessibility at Chicago's @TimeLineTheatre Tweet This

Share this article Tweet about this on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on LinkedIn Email this to someone

TimeLine Theatre Company has always had the desire to make our work accessible to patrons with disabilities—which has required some creative thinking in our beloved old church space.

But since ADA 25 Chicago’s Cultural Accessibility Summit, TimeLine Theatre Company has made strides towards greater inclusion of patrons with disabilities through our performances. As our audience services manager, I have made access a central priority and focus of the audience services department.

TimeLine Theatre Company was awarded the Theatre Development Fund’s (TDF) National Open Captioning Initiative grant in summer of 2016 largely due to the great work of our development manager, Lydia Swift. This grant enabled us to embark on our first season with open captioned performances.

As soon as I learned about TDF’s decision, I asked TimeLine to help send me to the annual LEAD (Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability) conference, so that I could learn as much as possible about how to best serve audience members who are deaf and hard of hearing. Though the conference was in August and it was already early summer, TimeLine didn’t hesitate to cover my trip to Pittsburgh.

LEAD was an amazing, invaluable experience, and I left feeling inspired and motivated, having quite literally filled an entire notebook with ways to enhance and improve access at TimeLine. More importantly, I also left feeling genuinely grateful to work for an organization that highly values accessibility and inclusion. Many conference attendees expressed frustration that they couldn’t make their higher-ups understand why access is worth investing in. I have never once had to convince anyone at TimeLine why access is important.

A point that was stressed over and over again at LEAD was the great importance of high-quality customer service, so my first priority was enhancing the accessibility training I give my front-of-house staff. I wanted to make sure that every part of the TimeLine experience, from visiting our website to attending a performance, made patrons with disabilities feel welcomed and comfortable.

Many conference attendees expressed frustration that they couldn’t make their higher-ups understand why access is worth investing in. I have never once had to convince anyone at TimeLine why access is important.

I’m happy to say that throughout this season we’ve steadily increased the attendance of new and returning audience members who are deaf and hard-of-hearing for our open captioned (OC) performances. Several of our longtime patrons and subscribers were thrilled to start attending captioned performances, and I’ve worked to get the word out to the larger deaf and hard-of-hearing community in Chicago through promotional emails, flyers, listings and direct outreach.

I recently attended the Hearing Loss Association of America’s Lincoln Park Chapter meeting to discuss captioning at TimeLine, and I’m hopeful that their wonderfully welcoming members will become TimeLine regulars. We’ve asked for patron feedback after every OC performance this season, and we’ve taken all the notes we’ve received seriously, making adjustments to improve the quality of the OC experience with each performance.

The Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium has also been a huge help to me this year. It’s no secret that the Chicago arts community is collaborative, but CCAC members are willing to share their knowledge, resources and time so that the entire city’s cultural offerings can be enjoyed by as many people as possible. I do my best to attend as many of their workshops as I can, and I always reach out to their leadership and member community first if I have access questions.

I’m looking forward to what future seasons hold for access at TimeLine. TDF has renewed their support for a second season of OC funding, and that application process involved soliciting letters of support from patrons who are deaf and hard-of-hearing. I was overwhelmed by the letters we received back, indicating strong support and enthusiasm for captioning at TimeLine.

It’s no secret that the Chicago arts community is collaborative, but CCAC members are willing to share their knowledge, resources and time so that the entire city’s cultural offerings can be enjoyed by as many people as possible.

We also very recently received a grant from the Service Club of Chicago that will allow us to purchase our own captioning screen (so that we can potentially have two screens displaying captioning, to increase visibility in certain seating arrangements) and an additional set of assistive listening devices that we can use when we are producing off-site in spaces that do not already have them. Additionally, I’m working to add audio described performances and touch tours as soon as possible for patrons who are blind or have low vision.

PJ Powers, our artistic director, recalls the Cultural Accessibility Summit as “a wake-up call for us to stop letting perfect be the enemy of the good (and overdue).” Or, put another way, it was time for us to stop lamenting all of the things that we felt unable to do, and it was time to turn good intentions into action. We appreciate the partnerships and support that have made this dream a reality.