The Journal Gazette
Sunday, May 17, 2020 1:00 am

Doorway to a more inclusive world

Let's resolve not to lose the gains pandemic has revealed for those of all ability levels

Cassie Beer

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a screeching halt, I have seen many social media posts encouraging us to reconsider what parts of our lives are truly worth rushing back to when this is over.

On a personal level, I appreciate this call to reflect: have I been unnecessarily busy? Have I been prioritizing our family, acts of kindness, caring for our neighbors, supporting our local businesses and restaurants?

It also begs rumination on communal and organizational levels. As a musician, I watched all my gigs disappear from the calendar; as a fan, many long-anticipated shows were postponed or canceled.

Almost immediately, local arts entrepreneur Alicia Pyle took up the banner for Fort Wayne's musicians and began livestreaming shows to raise money and awareness for the arts community. Artists ranging in popularity from Alicia Keys and Lady Gaga all the way down to yours truly have used platforms such as Facebook Live and IGTV to broadcast live shows to the living rooms of fans around the world.

Suddenly, when we could no longer access one of the things we love and value most, we near-instantaneously found a way to make it accessible again.

But what about people who routinely, in a non-pandemic era, do not have ease of access to the arts? Why did it take us so long?

I don't raise this question without recognizing what a phenomenal job our city has done to further the cause of both accessibility and inclusion. As a parent of a child with disabilities, the world-class work done by local organizations such as Arts United and the AWS Foundation has positively affected my family's quality of life.

From events such as the special abilities days at Science Central and sensory-friendly nights at the Fort Wayne Ballet to the inclusive signage installed for Art This Way, our city has shown her adaptability and willingness to go to bat for some of our most vulnerable community members. Work that took decades.

Yet in response to the pandemic, over a few short weeks, we have also been able to take hip-hop lessons in our kitchen from the Fort Wayne Dance Collective, tour the Fort Wayne Museum of Art's latest gallery installations virtually and watch movies provided by the Cinema Center. Our child with disabilities has been able to watch concerts from our home that would be too loud and overcrowded for him to tolerate in person.

A world we have worked hard to crack ajar for him suddenly broke wide open when every child needed it. How can we keep the door open?

Even with the progress that has been made, we can still do better. Creating physically accessible places isn't enough. Just because people can access a location or program does not mean they will feel included or able to participate.

As we begin to open up our businesses and rebook concerts, let's consider how we can not only maintain but build upon the ease of connection we so quickly adopted under crisis. Livestreams have proven their appeal and value, yet many still do not offer closed-captioning services or translators.

Venues could consider hosting roundtable discussions with their communities to discuss what actions will improve live music and arts experiences for patrons with disabilities. Every location in town that offers live performances can take this forced hiatus as an opportunity to develop an exhaustively detailed accessibility section on their website.

Has your organization undergone training not just in the minimum legal parameters of communicating with people with disabilities, but actively evaluated how welcoming and inclusive your practices are? Your future customers are out here, and we want to help.

Research has shown that when people with disabilities experience social inclusion in arts and cultural experiences, they experience increased confidence, greater development of social support networks, improved mental health and self-determination, and a greater likelihood of employment.

If we believe the arts are a foundational element to community growth, not just for some but for all, creating access and inclusion for participation should continue to be at the top of our list.

When we're able to come together again, let's not leave behind those who are so often left alone. Let's keep the door open. 

Fort Wayne singer-songwriter Cassie Beer performs with Rosalind & the Way.

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