Bill Aims To Make Arts More Accessible For Those With Disabilities

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BOSTON (State House News Service) — Arts and culture institutions that want to make their programs more accessible for people with disabilities but are hamstrung by a lack of financial resources called on state lawmakers Tuesday to create a grant program to address the funding gap.

Vast swaths of Massachusetts residents who have disabilities, including artists themselves and consumers, are unable to fully participate in arts and cultural opportunities due to barriers tied to accessing venues and program offerings, Emily Ruddock, executive director of advocacy organization MASSCreative, said during a legislative hearing.

A proposed funding stream under bills filed by Rep. Daniel Donahue and Sen. Paul Mark (H 151 / S 113), called the Accessibility in the Creative Economy (ACE) grant program, would enable eligible organizations in the arts, humanities and interpretive sciences sector to make investments to upgrade their facilities with accessibility improvements, such as ramps and elevators. The grants could also be used for communication access devices, projects to improve access to various programs, and training initiatives at for-profit, nonprofit and public organizations.

"We know the creative sector in Massachusetts delivers economic, communal and personal benefits to residents of the commonwealth," Ruddock told the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities. "Right now those benefits are not available to everyone in the commonwealth."

It's the first session the legislation, crafted by MASSCreative, has been filed, an aide to Mark told the News Service.

The proposals would establish a board tasked with developing recommendations to distribute the grants, and "no less than 1% of funds" allocated to the Executive Office of Health and Human Services would be earmarked for ACE, according to a MASSCreative bill summary.

About two-thirds of nearly 90 arts and culture organizations said a lack of or limited funding and staff are among the biggest barriers that have prevented them from becoming more accessible and inclusive to people with disabilities, according to a report released last year by Open Door Arts, which is focused on boosting arts access and representation for individuals with disabilities, with the Mass Cultural Council.

"The cost can be prohibitive for many organizations, particularly those that are under-resourced or who are fighting hard to stay afloat, particularly in the process of pandemic recovery," Nicole Agois, the managing director of Open Door Arts who co-authored the report, said at the hearing. "The accessibility of the creative sector is an equity issue that affects every part of the commonwealth and organizations of all types and sizes."

More than half of organizations said they never provided Braille materials, half had never offered way-finding and navigation accessibility services, and about a third never gave audio description services, according to the report.

Despite the recent 33rd anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, more work must be done to "realize the promise" of the legislation, said Margaret Keller, executive director of the nonprofit organization Community Access to the Arts in Berkshire County. Keller outlined common barriers for the committee, such as theaters running out of listening devices, no ASL interpreters at events, and artists unable to access backstage spaces before their performances.

"There is a hunger to address this now. Artists and cultural leaders are more aware than ever of the shortcomings of their programs and spaces, of the barriers and challenges they seek to surmount in order to engage all of our community," Keller said at the hearing. "We are missing out as a culture and as a commonwealth when we fail to include everyone."

Written by Alison Kuznitz/SHNS

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