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The Lehigh Valley Arts Council and the Lehigh Valley Partnership for a Disability Friendly Community are teaming up to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act through the lens of the arts.They are developing training opportunities for community volunteers and arts administrators, and offering support to designated cultural and arts programs that demonstrate commitment and inclusiveness.  On July 26, 2015, a year-long celebration, Arts & Access, will commence with a series of varied arts events that highlight the accessibility of the region’s cultural community.

The mission is “to engage all citizens of the Lehigh Valley, intentionally securing the participation of persons of all abilities, regardless of physical, sensory, or cognitive limitation, both as audience members and/or providers in the dance, theatrical, musical, visual, literary and media arts.”

Planning for Arts & Access has been underway for the past eight months, and the scope of the celebration is designed to unite the entire community around creating a more inclusive region moving into the future. Arts and Access will impact tourism, economic development, as well as the quality of life for persons with disabilities and their families by:

  1. Expanding cultural access to all people with disabilities.
  2. Helping cultural nonprofits a) recognize the needs of persons with disabilities and the abilities of artists with disabilities; b) comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act; and c) build audiences for their events.
  3. Promoting the benefits of inclusion by telling the stories of how engagement in the arts is transformative.

“It’s time to lead!” says Arts Council Executive Director Randall Forte, “and use the power of the arts to increase everyone’s comfort level with accessibility.”


Since 2011, the Lehigh Valley Arts Council has been managing the Pennsylvania Arts Accessibility Program (PAAP) in the Lehigh Valley, with the guidance of VSA PA, Center for Vision Loss, LVCIL, cultural groups, and individuals with disabilities. PAAP offers visual and hearing-impaired individuals greater access to cultural events by providing nonprofit arts groups with training, marketing support and shared use of audio-description and open captioning equipment. Open Captioning provides the audience with an electronic text display to the side of the stage, displaying lyrics, dialogue, and sound effects in real time. Audio Description is a form of audio-visual translation, using natural pauses to insert narrative that translates the visual image into an audible form. Patrons use headsets to hear the audio description.

In cooperation with the Lehigh Valley Health Network, the Arts Council hosted a community discussion on accessibility at the Mack Boulevard campus on November 21, 2013. Featured guest Betty Siegel, Director of Accessibility at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, outlined the importance of embracing accessibility as a community asset and a core value of customer service. At the close of the session, fifty-five attendees were invited to participate in the planning for the anniversary.

The Partnership is a diverse network of people and agencies united in the goal to improve the lives of people with disabilities in our community. Since 2010, the Partnership has been working to improve community awareness and advocacy, and transportation and housing access.


According to U.S. Census data estimates from 2012, the number of non-institutionalized people with disabilities living in the Lehigh Valley is 81,000, or 12.7%, which represents a significant number of potential new audiences for the cultural community.

“People with disabilities are a large and growing market, with $175 billion in discretionary spending.” Source: U.S. Department of Justice, “Expanding your Market…Customers with Disabilities.”

Both the Arts Council and the Partnership have been engaging their constituents in assessing challenges and measuring their capacity to meet those challenges. The first step was to conduct an audit of current accessibility practices in the region in order to identify how to assist cultural nonprofits comply with the ADA.   Sixty social service agencies and 110 cultural nonprofits were invited to participate; approximately 50% of each group responded and the results show a significant need to provide training to staff and volunteers and build more awareness of the challenges and barriers that exist for people with disabilities to participate in cultural events.The surveys also indicate that the majority of cultural nonprofits offer wheelchair accessibility and accessible parking and restrooms. However, less than 13% of the groups offer open captioning, sign language interpreters, audio description, and Braille printed materials. Only 16.7% offer large print brochures; and 29% offer assistive listening devices.The Planning Committee meets on the first Monday of the month, from 3:30-5:00p.m. in the 2nd floor conference room in the Butz Corporate Building. Interested citizens are  invited to  attend the next meeting, Monday July 7th , or call 610-437-5915 to RSVP.

The Lehigh Valley Arts Council is offering audio description training to the theatre community in order to help them increase attendance to their productions by becoming more disability-friendly.

Audio description assists patrons who are blind/low-vision to access the visual elements stage productions through live narration provided by trained describers. Patrons use headsets to hear the audio description.

The Arts Council has contracted Mimi Kenney Smith, Executive Director of VSA Pennsylvania, to provide the training over the course of two days, July 18 & 19, 2014. Smith, a veteran describer for more than two decades, is also the producing director for Amaryllis Theatre, a professional Philadelphia theatre that regularly includes artists with disabilities. She will introduce the class to the foundational skills—Observe, Analyze and Communicate— necessary to audio describe a play. At the end of the first day, the class will experience an audio described performance of Monty Python’s Spamalot at Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre.

Theatre practitioners from all walks of life—actors, students, volunteers, educators—are encouraged to enroll and acquire new performance skills.

July 18, 201410:00 AM – 5:00 PMLehigh Valley Arts Council; 2nd Floor conference Room
7:30 PM – 10:00 PMMonty Python’s SpamalotBaker Theatre/Trexler Pravilon
July 19, 201410:00 AM – 4:00 PMLehigh Valley Arts Council; 2nd Floor conference Room

Reservations required at; reserve your spot today! Fee: $25.

by Randall Forte, Lehigh Valley Arts Council executive director

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