Pittsburgh's art groups forge ahead on accessibility | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Pittsburgh's art groups forge ahead on accessibility

"They really work this as a community."

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The modern era of arts accessibility dates to the American Sign Language performances some theaters offered in the 1970s. Following the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, wheelchair access to public venues of all sorts became standard.

But if you were blind, deaf or faced other sensory or cognitive challenges, the new ramps and elevators got you only so far. For visually impaired patrons in Pittsburgh, at least, a breakthrough came in 2003, when Pittsburgh Opera began offering audio description at one performance of each production. Today, the service draws up to 70 listeners per production. City Theatre followed suit two years later, and now averages 20 audio-description patrons per selected performance

Such early efforts were seeded by grants from the Pittsburgh-based FISA Foundation, and it was FISA that sparked the current surge in arts accessibility here. In 2011, FISA and the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council began offering accessibility workshops for arts groups.

Since then, things have moved quickly. With FISA support, more local arts administrators began attending the annual Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability conference, a professional network affiliated with the Kennedy Center, a national leader in arts access. By 2013, both Melby and a team from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust (which owns the Benedum Center, the Byham Theater and other Downtown venues) had won LEAD awards as emerging leaders.

Three years ago, the only sensory accommodation the Trust regularly offered was ASL at selected performances of touring Broadway shows. Now, says Trust director of accessibility Vanessa Braun, there are also large-print programs, audio description and closed captioning on hand-held devices at selected shows and on request (given sufficient notice)

One accessibility frontier involves audience members on the autism spectrum, who might be especially sensitive to light and sound, or who might behave in ways unacceptable in traditional theater settings. In September 2013, the Benedum Center became just the third venue nationally to host a "sensory-friendly" performance of Disney's The Lion King. And that December, the PBT hosted the nation's first sensory-friendly performance of holiday favorite The Nutcracker.

In these shows, the house lights were dimmed only halfway, and lighting and sound effects (like Mufasa's roar) that might alarm some patrons were softened or eliminated. More important, though, was the "relaxed-rules" atmosphere that made it OK for patrons to talk during scenes, or even get up and walk around.

Nearly 2,400 people with autism, their family members and caretakers, attended that Lion King. Braun says many families reported that it was the first time they'd taken their autistic child to a live show. Jim Walter, of Shaler, enjoyed that Lion King with his wife, his older daughter and Lily, then age 7, who is autistic. "The stress of managing her behavior throughout the performance was relieved," says Walter.

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