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Accessibility in the Performing Arts with Miranda Hoffner
June 18, 2021
Welcome to 3Play Media’s Allied Podcast, a show on all things accessibility. This month’s episode features Miranda Hoffner and is about the importance of making the performing arts accessible to diverse audiences – including people with disabilities.
Miranda Hoffner has been working for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts for the past seven years as an accessibility expert, creating sustainable systems to ensure accessibility is infused at all levels of the organization, for staff, guests, and artists.
Miranda has reshaped Lincoln Center’s commitment to inclusion through policy, innovative programming, and internal consensus building. She also served on the inaugural Diversity Equity and Inclusion Council.
In addition, Miranda has created and managed two graduate fellowships and programs, coaching future leaders in accessibility.
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ELISA LEWIS: Welcome back to Allied, the podcast for everything you need to know about web and video accessibility. I’m your host, Elisa Lewis, and on today’s episode, we have accessibility expert Miranda Hoffner, who specializes in arts and culture. Miranda is joining us from the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts to talk about accessibility in the performing arts.
Miranda is the resident expert in accessibility at the Lincoln Center and has reshaped Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ commitment to accessibility and inclusion through policy, innovative programming, and internal consensus building. She also served on the inaugural diversity, equity, and inclusion or DEI Council. Additionally, Miranda has created and managed two graduate fellowships in partnerships and programs and in digital accessibility, coaching future leaders in accessibility.
Miranda’s current role at the Lincoln Center is associate director of accessibility and guest services. In this role, she creates sustainable systems to ensure accessibility is infused at all levels of the organization for staff, guests, and artists alike. We’re so excited to have Miranda join us on Allied today. It’s going to be a great conversation.
So thank you, Miranda, so much for being here on the Allied podcast. We’re super excited to have you. To start, I’d love to know a little bit more about you and how you got your start working in access. I understand that you began your career working in museums. And I’m curious how you transitioned to the performing arts and what that transition was like for you.
MIRANDA HOFFNER: Great. Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here. It’s interesting, because I felt a lot of pangs when I moved from museums to performing arts, thinking I was leaving behind this material culture that I loved so deeply. But once I got there, I realized that the work is the same.
It’s really rooted in accessibility, rooted in equity. So the work that I was doing at museums to bring people in to experience culture is very, very similar to the work to bring people in to have them experience culture in performing arts instead. And my route into access is different than a lot of other folks. I don’t identify as having a disability currently. So it doesn’t come from a personal place.
It really just comes from a real love and passion for culture. And thinking as we’re designing these beautiful experiences, designing exhibitions, designing performing arts experiences, what people are being left out of that process. And why are barriers there? And how can we remove those barriers? So again, the work in museums, the work in performing arts is really rooted in the same place.
ELISA LEWIS: Awesome. Thank you for sharing that. So I know that for individuals who may be new to the topic, particularly those who are nondisabled or identify as nondisabled, the concept of accessible performing arts may come with a lot of questions, a lot of assumptions, and may seem a little bit confusing. Can you share, generally, what an accessible performance looks like? And then later in the conversation, we can dive in a bit deeper.
MIRANDA HOFFNER: Sure. We can start with live performances, live in-person performances, which I know at a time that we’re all living in right now, it’s something we deeply miss. I know I deeply miss going to live performances.
So the basis is what are the bones of the experience. Are you designing an experience that happens in a standard performing arts venue with seats or not? What do those seats look like? How close together are the seats? Is your space ADA accessible?
So those are some of the places that we begin with, just making sure that the basis of the experience matches the ADA accommodations requirements that are needed for a physical space. Then we want to get into what is the most important elements that we want our audience to take away from it. So if it’s a performance that spoken word is really critical to it, what are ways that we can enhance that experience to make sure that people get access to those words?
So is captioning or ASL interpretation a really important way to make sure that that integral connection with the piece is accessible or as accessible as possible? Are there really interesting visual elements to the piece? That if you were blind or had low vision, you would be missing, again, a really essential component of what the artistic experience should be. How can you add audio description to those components to make sure that those are accessible for people who are blind or have low vision?
Then you want to consider the social experience of attending a performance. So for people who have cognitive, intellectual, developmental disabilities, sensory disabilities, are you getting into the performance at the same time where there’s a really big crowd? Are you explaining a complicated security process ahead of time? So what are some of the ways that you can decrease anxiety with those transitions to just getting to your space for people that have sensory sensitivities, things like that?
Are there production elements like flashing lights, or really loud noises, or things that are sort of sudden? That you want to warn people about ahead of time. So I think it’s important, again, to just begin with that basis, the physical space that you’re beginning with. And then think of how you can layer these on that enhances the artistic experience and what the artist is trying to bring across.
ELISA LEWIS: That’s great. Thanks for explaining that. Some barriers I think may seem a little bit more obvious than others to individuals who maybe are new to this concept.
One thing that comes to mind is not being able to hear music. But I’d love to dive into the nuance. What are some of the biggest accessibility barriers in the arts?
MIRANDA HOFFNER: I think one that is spoken really beautifully from– I’ve heard it mentioned from lots of people. But Peter Slatin is one really amazing person in the field that I look to a lot as a leader. And he talks a lot about social inclusion. So I think you can have the most physically accessible performance that is taking place in the most accessible venue, that has all the accommodations you could imagine.
But if you don’t have trained staff that are really there to create a welcoming environment for everyone, if you don’t have a diverse audience space where people can see people that look like them and interact with the piece like they would, and if you don’t have staff members that are, again, diverse from a variety of backgrounds, ideally people with disabilities at all levels of your organization, and if you’re not presenting art that connects with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, those are all cues that you’re not making it as socially inclusive as you possibly could. So I think that that’s a really important piece that people don’t always consider, especially if you’re building a new building that, again, is the most accessible building you ever could have. If you’re not really welcoming people in and making them feel like it’s a place for them, a welcoming place for them, then you’re not actually doing the work of accessibility.
ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. That makes a lot of sense. One question that I have for you, and I think it’s a bit related to this idea of social inclusion is, how do you successfully navigate programming disability specific performances while also integrating disabled audiences into general performances?
MIRANDA HOFFNER: Yeah. Thank you for asking that question. It’s something that I struggle with almost every day in my position, and I have in the field over the last decade. I’ve thought a lot about this. And I really, I think that it comes down to the world that I want to live in, that we all should be hoping to live in, and the world that we live in right now.
So the world that I hope to live in is that anyone can come to anything they want that interests them. For example, if you are someone who is deaf, you probably need to let– to request your accommodation of having an interpreter several weeks in advance. If you are not deaf, you can just buy a ticket to a lot of shows and not have to worry about that request ahead of time. So as we think about integrating disability specific programs versus integrated experiences, we can’t really do and have integrated experiences be accessible for everyone until we start breaking down a lot of these barriers around accommodations.
I also want to acknowledge the trauma of many disabled people and to the experiences that they’ve felt of being historically, systemically, kept out of public accommodations, kept out of the arts, especially. And that if you are someone who has acquired your disability later in life, you may not feel quite comfortable advocating for yourself yet. Or if you’re someone who’s had a disability who was born with a disability, you may feel as though you’re advocating for yourself constantly in all aspects of your life. And there’s a level of trauma there. Right?
So we also want to consider how disability specific audiences means that some people feel that they can just walk in, and relax, and take a breath, and really feel like everyone there understands their needs, and that they don’t need to explain something, fight for something, advocate for something. So I think that there’s some power in disability specific programming. That, again, provides a sense of community, brings people together, lets people relax a little bit.
And I think there’s a bridge that I’m hoping that Lincoln Center is really helping move towards. So we work a lot with families with young people with disabilities. And a huge number of our families are families with young people with autism. And they stick with us for a long time.
So young people become teenagers, become adults too. So we’ve known them. We work with people through their life span. But I’m thinking of a lot of families with young people with autism that come to us for a disability specific supported programs.
And then they graduate, for lack of a better word, to more mainstream performances. Because they learn a little bit more about being comfortable in our space. They learn a little bit more about strategies for being in inclusive audience spaces. And again, while I’d love for everyone to be able to come to anything they want, I think for some people, having that choice is really, really vital and important.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. And you mentioned something a little bit earlier in the conversation just around the anxiety that comes along with having to make these requests, plan in advance, map everything out ahead of time. And that is exhausting.
So it definitely sounds like it’s really helpful to have the best of both worlds. And I agree that the vision for the world is just to have one type of one offering that is inclusive and accessible and perfect for everyone. But we’re not quite there yet.
I really wanted to ask you. I think a lot of people, again, who maybe aren’t familiar with accessibility in the performing arts may wonder how or why can someone who is blind, or low vision, or deaf really enjoy art, particularly art that maybe does rely heavily on sight or on hearing. And what have you learned in your work about these assumptions that you can maybe share with the audience?
MIRANDA HOFFNER: Yeah. That’s a great question. One really transformative moment that I had in my work with accessibility happened a couple of years ago. And we had a really phenomenal production of The Magic Flute which is a very old school opera.
And we had– there was a very modern version of it that was based in a 1920s the aesthetic of silent film. So it had this really interesting incorporation of having projections with words on them along with the arias that were being sung, along with other production elements with the piece. It was a very, very complicated piece. And we decided that that was a really amazing opportunity to invite people who are blind to.
So the intention of the artists that put together this version really leaned heavily on, again, words that were displayed on a screen using projections, really complex projections, and then also to have performers on stage that was a highly costumed aesthetic to it. So we knew that opera is something that has amazing audio component to it. It’s storytelling. It has a huge band, a huge orchestra associated with it.
So there were a lot of really interesting elements that could work really well for folks who are blind. But we also had to figure out how to make these visual elements accessible. So we gave it a try. And we did it in the version that I think is something that, again, as someone who is not disabled, I try really hard to practice stepping back and hearing from people with lived experience.
So we put together a working group. So we pulled together a group of people who are blind or had low vision, a range of vision loss, and had them come together and meet with our audio describers. We put together a team of audio describers to work on the piece. We described the piece.
And we asked them, do you like this or that better? Let’s listen to a piece of the audio. And then we’re going to describe the visual elements in two ways. You give us feedback.
So we had a really fantastic working group that helped us figure out those things. And then they came to the opera. And it was so special. It was in the Metropolitan Opera House which is this super grand, beautiful, beautiful building.
It has 4,000 seats. It’s a real emotional experience to experience a piece in that kind of audience. And it’s also really elegant place. So I think that a lot of our visitors, especially people who are blind or have low vision, may not have had that experience before of being in that space.
I’m thinking of one person specifically who said, I had never heard an opera before. And to be able to be part of this performance made me realize a new love that I didn’t have in the arts which is, again, whenever you hear those words, it makes me feel like all this work is totally worth it. So it was a really phenomenal, transformative night. And the people that came really, really enjoyed it.
I learned a lot about describing, again, really complex productions. I think our audio describers learned a lot. And it was really successful.
But then at the end of the night, two of the folks that came– it was a couple. Both of them– one was blind. One person had low vision. And they were waiting for their Access-A-Ride, which if your listeners are in New York City, Access-A-Ride is our paratransit system for people with disabilities. They’re able to call and organize a ride.
They had this beautiful night. I think it was a three hour opera. It was a complicated night. They were exhausted. They were older adults.
They went to get in their car, and their car didn’t show up for almost an hour. So I spent about an hour with them outside of Lincoln Center trying to figure out how to get home. And they didn’t have the money to order a cab without going through Access-A-Ride. It was a really disheartening end to the night.
So it was just a– and a lot of ups and downs with them and eventually getting home. But it reminded me that we can do a lot to make the arts come alive. I know that the arts are really transformative for a lot of people. But there’s so many things we have to do on a societal level to make people with disabilities have the same access to transportation, the same access to the arts.
It’s one thing to make your space accessible. It’s another thing to think about all of the things that people need to go through to get to you to be able to experience those things. So it was a really interesting night for me to consider those kinds of elements.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for sharing that. I think it is an important reminder, with all of the work that we’re doing, that there is always, always more to be done and always room for improvement. I would love to shift gears a little bit and learn more about the accessibility program specifically that Lincoln Center offers. Can you share any specific moments or impacts from any of these programs?
MIRANDA HOFFNER: Sure. I can share a couple of moments that stand out to me. One is, a few years ago, we were hearing more and more from our subscribers that people were not renewing their subscription to some performing arts, like the New York Philharmonic, as people aged, and some people, as they developed dementia, were no longer able to come to evening performances.
So we created a new series called Lincoln Center Moments that was specifically designed to take those main stage performances and put them in the afternoon at a more accessible time for people in a smaller space and a more accessible space. And then we trained teaching artists and music therapists to do workshops after those performances. So that people are able to feel a social connection to each other, really draw out people’s individuality, which is one thing that goes missing a lot as people’s dementia progresses over time.
So it’s been a really phenomenal program to think about how power– when we think about the power of the arts, specifically for people who are losing a lot of elements of what makes them an individual, and what makes them feel connected to themselves and others. Again, as their disease progresses, we’ve been able to put together a program that really, really validates the individual, validates social connection, validates their self-expression. So that has been a really, really amazing process.
And another thing that we’re really proud of at Lincoln Center is we recognize that people with disabilities have much more of a chance of being unemployed or underemployed. It’s a phenomenal rate depending on where you live in the country of the number of people who are unemployed who have disabilities. So we were thinking about how to make a small impact, a little tiny dent in those numbers, by thinking of how to create pre-employment skills in people when they’re in high school or transition age.
So we have a residency type model, where we work with, right now, six different schools in New York City, where we have teaching artists and educators go in and teach job training skills with them. And then they work on campus in front of house shifts. So they learn how to interact with the public. They work on their social skills.
They work on how to work on a team, how to go through a self-assessment process. So just like any of us that have ever looked for a job, we have to think about what are we good at. How do we answer questions about our strengths and skills? So we go through that process with students.
And we’re super proud to say that many of them have gone on to get employment either at Lincoln Center or other performing arts organizations. Even more have realized that front of house and performing arts are not for them, which is also a really valuable thing to learn when you’re in high school, what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. And I think, in our small way, we really want to shift how many people with disabilities make up our staff and especially in the performing arts.
ELISA LEWIS: That sounds like a really impactful program. I’m curious if any, or how many of those people end up becoming– are they involved in their performances? Or is it more kind of an organizational type roles or things like that?
MIRANDA HOFFNER: Great question. Right now, most of our access ambassadors are– we’re training them specifically for front of house. So they’re learning how to interact with the public, which is also a really powerful message to send audience members. When audience members see people with disabilities in positions of power and importance, I think is a really important message to send to people. That we value a diversity of experiences in our staff.
But we are excited to think of how we can expand that role to other types of positions throughout the organization. Because certainly, there’s no– not everyone wants to work in front of a house. And there is a need for people with disabilities in all levels of the organization.
ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. That’s really cool. So I’m curious how technology has advanced access to the arts for people with disabilities. At 3Play, we talk about captions and audio description in the digital and video accessibility perspective. But I would love to hear a little bit about how tech has played into the performing arts.
MIRANDA HOFFNER: Yeah. It’s been a really interesting year from that perspective for sure. So as all of our performances moved online, became virtual, we’ve done it in a bunch of different ways.
We’ve had live synchronous experiences, where a performer performs via Zoom. And the audience members are able to interact with those performers. And then we’ve had them with recorded content too, where we have performers recording themselves in their studios, or at Lincoln Center in a socially distanced way. And then we’ve had those videos put up on our website.
So we’ve had to become, really, experts around digital accessibility. And I will say that 3Play played a huge role in making that happen for us. Because we went from having a handful of videos each month, which we were able to caption in-house to having to caption tens to hundreds of hours of content each month. So it really, really shifted the balance of what we were offering online. So it meant that we needed to outsource that, and 3Play is our vendor for that.
It also meant that we just had to educate our staff a lot more on digital accessibility. So the primary ways that we’ve thought about that is primarily captioning. We’re also thinking about translation and language access, language equity, in our work.
We are also thinking about audio description, which is complicated with the arts. Because so much of the artist’s intention is really vital. And so much of the experience of the viewer is dependent on their knowledge. For example, if it’s a ballet piece, whether or not you know what a tendu is, it matters. Right?
So the language that the audio describer uses has to be at the right education level for the type of dance that’s being shown. So that the most people understand what’s going on with the ballet or the dance piece. So we have focused a lot on captioning. We’ve thought a lot about audio description.
And we also are doing more live streamed events, so thinking about how to have a cart operator who’s working with us in person. And also, that is ending up on live stream is something that we’re working through right now. So from a positive impact side, I think that it has really forced our organization to think about accessibility from a marketing and digital standpoint in a much more serious way. Because again, the balance of our content became virtual really, really quickly.
Also, platforms like Zoom have a lot of great integration of accessibility, which has been really, really helpful for us. It’s also really identified our growing pains, and the places that we need to focus a lot more on digital inclusion, and the places that we fall short. So we have, again, a long way to go to figure out audio description in a really smart and integrated way.
But we have started practice at all of our offerings to do an image description at the top of our performances. We’ve trained our staff on how to describe slides more clearly. So I think that we’ve made a lot of strides because of the past year and things going online.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I know everyone was in the same boat, where no matter what industry you were in, everything shifted very quickly.
So it sounds like you were able to do a lot to adjust which is awesome. I know that we both mentioned, throughout this conversation, that there’s still work to be done. And I’m curious if there are any sort of innovations that you’re particularly excited about, or any that you wish existed to make the arts more accessible.
MIRANDA HOFFNER: I would love, love, love to see a way for audio description to be turned off and on as a track, the way that you can go onto YouTube and turn captioning on and off. I think that that would be an amazing thing to do. Right now, our solution for audio description is to have a separate video. So people can click on a separate video.
And I think if you’re taking a step beyond audio description, another thing to consider is people who need to not have captioning or any other accommodations visible because of sensory disabilities, people that need plain text. So if there was a way to turn off and on layering of digital content, the way that captioning can be turned off and on, I think that would be an amazing integration. That I would love to see, an innovation I’d love to see.
ELISA LEWIS: Awesome. I don’t know if I’ll include this in here. But you should check out our– I don’t know if you do audio description through 3Play. But our plugin actually allows you to do that.
MIRANDA HOFFNER: Oh. I’ll check that.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. Just, I’m happy to follow up with more details.
MIRANDA HOFFNER: Yeah. How does it show up? Is it– would it show up on YouTube?
ELISA LEWIS: So it won’t show up on YouTube. You would have to embed the YouTube video, as well as the plug-in, on a web page or something like that. And then it’s just a little gray box that shows up under the video. And it allows you to pause.
Yeah. You can– it’s like what you said. It basically allows you to shut off or on the audio description, adjust the volume of the audio description separately from the original track.
MIRANDA HOFFNER: That’s so cool. Yes. I would love to see that.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. I’ll definitely send that to you to check out. So more broadly, is there anything that you hope to see that you hope that performing arts will look like in the future for people with disabilities?
MIRANDA HOFFNER: Yeah. There’s a lot of things I’m hoping for in the next decades. One is more disabled artists and disabled artistry, more disabled stories being told. I think it’s really, really crucial. One of the really powerful things that the arts can do is to be a mirror to you, to give you an example, to see your life on a stage, and to validate your own experiences.
And I definitely can think of the first books that I read that I felt like, I really identify with that character. I really see myself in that character. And so many people with disabilities don’t have that same experience at really formative ages. So I would love to see how we, as a field, can support disabled artistry and disabled artists in a much more serious way, and then to also adjust our systems to make sure that disabled artists can thrive, which means that not only do our audience spaces need to be physically accessible. But our backstages do too.
A lot of our systems are very ableist of making people sign contracts really quickly, or asking people to write their marketing content very, very quickly, put together pieces very quickly. I think that we don’t give people a lot of space to really think and create and support that process for many institutions. So I would love to see how we can think about looking at our ableist practices and making space for disabled artists to really thrive.
On the audience side, I would– I’m really excited to think about how we can support the concept of relaxed performances, which are something that’s really taken off in the UK, but has not been done in the most integrated way in the US. There are certainly some standouts. And Roundabout Theatre in New York is definitely one of them, doing amazing work in relaxed performances.
But a relaxed performance was described to me as the quiet car but the opposite. So it’s saying that some of the standard rules that you have when you attend a performance, which is getting to your seat before the show starts, sit silently as soon as that baton is lifted, and don’t move at all, and stay there, and don’t go to the bathroom. Don’t do anything, and then leave when the show is over. That’s not the way that most people need to really interact with the piece.
So some people have involuntary sounds that they make. Some people need to pace or move around. Some people just don’t know the social rules of attending. And they feel excluded or are discriminated against during the process of attending a performance.
So how can we lift and shift those rules to make it so that everyone feels that the arts are a space for them? And some of the rules are really unnecessary for the most people to get the most impact. How can we lay around things like quiet spaces if you need to take a break? How can you remove the no late seating rules? How can we have accommodations be standard? So you can walk into a performance and pick up noise canceling headphones if you need to, or assistive listening devices, or captioning devices.
How can all those things, those experiences, be normalized? And how can we shift the way that audiences– or how can we have audiences be a place that promotes empathy? So how can you sit next to someone who experiences the piece differently than you but experiences it with so much joy that you understand their experience a little bit more? So I’d be really excited to see how we can shift toward relaxed performances as a foundation, as a core to the work that we do, not in addition to or instead of standard experience.
And then from a staffing side, which we’ve talked about a little bit before, but how can we look at our hiring practices and take away unnecessary barriers? Does your college internship really need to be someone who’s in college? Can it be someone whose college aged? College aged shifts for people with disabilities that may enter colleges later in life.
Do you really need to lift 15 pounds to work in the finance department? Do you really need to be– I think what we’ve all learned in the past year is that you don’t need to be physically at work to do work. And you can be incredibly productive without being in a cubicle.
So how can we look at these practices and make sure that we’re removing barriers to get the most diverse and most talented workforce that we possibly can? How can we value people’s lived experiences, especially those with disabilities, to see as an enhancement of our employee pool, of our recruiting practice? So those are the three areas I would love to see a shift in.
ELISA LEWIS: Thank you for sharing that. I really appreciate it. And definitely, just a reminder that there’s a lot to think about and a lot to do.
And a lot of it really does– you touched on empathy. And a lot of it does come down to empathy and just understanding other, everyone’s individual and experiences things differently. And really just shifting some of the things that we’re used to, to be more understanding of others’ needs. Well, thank you so much. Before we wrap up, I would love to ask, where can our listeners find you and the Lincoln Center online?
MIRANDA HOFFNER: Thanks for asking. Please come to lincolncenter.org to learn more about what we have to offer. We have a very active social media presence on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, and Twitter. And especially, YouTube has some real gems, some older performances, some really new and innovative artists, disabled artists.
So I would recommend spending a little time on our YouTube page. Turn on the captioning. Enjoy the captioning. Check out audio description, and we hope that we start welcoming people back in person and as soon as possible.
We re-opened campus about a month ago. And we’re holding performances almost every day. So we hope that you can join us in person as well.
ELISA LEWIS: Awesome. Thank you. And one question that I just want to wrap up with, do you have a final piece of advice that you’d like to leave our listeners with today?
MIRANDA HOFFNER: Yeah. I think it’s really important to think about accessibility not as something that you’re adding on. So it’s not in addition to your work that you are adding on accommodations or thinking about people with disabilities. If you’re not doing accessibility work, it means you’re not actually doing your job.
Over a quarter of Americans have disabilities. We need to really not be programming for the one non-disabled person that we have in our mind. We need to think about diversity in a much different way, which means that accessibility, again, is not something that we’re adding on. It’s not something extra to our job. It is our job. It’s crucial to our job to make sure that the work that we’re creating can reach the most people as possible.
ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. Thank you so much.
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