Guest Speaker: Betty Siegel, a leader in arts accessibility

January 4, 2017

Betty Siegel, a nationally recognized leader in accessibility in the arts, paid a visit to Theatre Projects’ Connecticut office on Monday, November 28, to talk with our staff about creating performing arts spaces that are inclusive for all people. Betty is the Director of VSA and Accessibility at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, and she has more than 30 years of experience advocating on behalf of and fighting for accessible cultural facilities.

Betty is the leading force behind the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability Conference (LEAD), which for five years has brought together arts administrators to exchange ideas and offer training, advice, and strategies to help them ensure that cultural facilities are accessible and inclusive for all patrons, regardless of physical or mental condition.

By inviting in one of the nation’s leading experts on accessibility in arts facilities, Theatre Projects looked to better understand how arts administrators are accommodating—and how some buildings and organizations fail to accommodate—people with disabilities. By sharing her expertise, Betty provided an enlightening perspective into the ways theatre design and theatre equipment design can affect people with disabilities.

The Kennedy Center hosts approximately 2,000 performances annually, welcoming in nearly two million people in its six performance venues. Betty said the facility—one of the busiest venues in the country—is not only a performing arts center, it is also a monument to John F. Kennedy. “In our policies, we look to embody the values and principles that honor his legacy,” Betty said. ““We value freedom of expression, creativity, and respect for civil and human rights.”

Over an hour-long conversation, Betty touched on several legal, ethical, technological, design, and financial aspects involved in ensuring that arts spaces and individual productions are accessible for as many people as possible. Taking us through the history of laws, regulations, and standards governing treatment of people with disabilities, she gave us insight into the gradual advancements in accommodation that led to the sea change in accessibility that occurred when the landmark American with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed 26 years ago.

In the years since, the way American people talk and view people with disabilities has changed dramatically, Betty said. One important component of that change in perception is the vocabulary people now use to discuss disabilities. Previously, Betty said, the language operated in what she referred to as a “medical mode”—one in which the presumption is that something is wrong with the individual—whereas that has now shifted to what she referred to as a “rights mode,” where the problem or obstacle lies not with the individual, but with a society that refuses to address their needs and rights. 

Aside from a reflection of personal and organizational values, and an ethical imperative, creating accessible spaces for the performing arts is also a financial no-brainer. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans is disabled, Betty said, including nearly half the people over 65. Considering that those 52 years old and older make up the majority of theatre crowds and control three quarters of the wealth in the US, to neglect their accommodation is tantamount to throwing away millions of dollars a year.

Touching on many related topics, Theatre Projects staff learned how ADA compliance affects distribution of federal funds, common myths about “grandfathering,” and the many advances in technology that have made theatre-going a reality for people who never had the opportunity before. 

Engraved into many of the walls of the Kennedy Center, there are quotes from John F. Kennedy that embody his eloquence, passion, and principles. Betty read from one of her favorites—one she said encapsulated her spirit and that of the Kennedy Center: “I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.”

Following her talk, Betty sat down with some of our project managers, theatre designers, and equipment designers to talk further about approaches to accessibility, and to look at specific ongoing projects. She offered advice to help us create performance spaces that are versatile, flexible, and dynamic, and also welcoming and accommodating for all people. 

Theatre Projects' speaker series invites accomplished performing arts professionals to share their insights, history, and philosophy with our team, engaging in a back-and-forth conversation to better understand the challenges artists face, the facilities they operate in, and the trajectory of the performing arts.

Guest Speaker: Betty Siegel, a leader in arts accessibility
Credit: Theatre Projects
Guest Speaker: Betty Siegel, a leader in arts accessibility
Credit: Theatre Projects