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To line a dark cloud with some silver, COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of tools that make events and meetings accessible online. The ongoing pandemic “forced some really basic operational changes in our organizations and, in my opinion, some of them have been better for people with disabilities,” said Ingrid Tischer, development director for the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, during a February 24 webinar hosted by The Chronicle of Philanthropy. “The advantage you have right now is that your organization has just seen for itself how able it is to adapt to changing circumstances,” added Tischer, “and you can use that momentum.”

Tischer and her fellow panelists from Access Living and Disability Lead shared a hope that so-called hybrid events — simultaneously accessible remotely and in person — will increasingly be available to audiences of all kinds. What’s less foreseeable is whether, as caution abates and restrictions lift, arts and culture producers will “snap back” to pre-pandemic practices that exclude disabled people or raise barriers for them. “When I hear the phrase, ‘We’re getting back to normal,’ I’m like, ‘Whoa: What was that normal?’” says playwright Tsehaye Geralyn Hébert, a 2020 3Arts / Bodies of Work Fellow in theater at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of the Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium’s steering committee. While Hébert, Tischer, and other advocates for disability access and justice are encouraged by the possibilities this moment creates, they’re also concerned about the risk its potential will be squandered. “What do we as citizens do,” asks Hébert, “now that we know what political will and imagination does?”

The pandemic response laid at least one argument to rest, says independent artist and disabled dancer Jerron Herman. “I don’t feel like disabled people need to fight for the validity of virtual space anymore. I’m having conversations about the efficacy of the hybrid model and this idea that, if it’s not in person, it’s a failure, has been repaired, I think.” Still, as organizations grow more comfortable producing hybrid events, they should resist the assumption that disabled attendees will always prefer the virtual option, says Herman. “Zoom fatigue affected disabled people in a lot of the same ways it affected non-disabled people. I think there’s a real chance of a schism, where virtuality is just for disabled people, because of the ease of and the focus on accessibility in virtual spaces. I’m excited about in-person gatherings and, if we’re comparing things today with where we were in 2019, it behooves us to be in those places because we need to remind people that we are in the mix, that we’re present. Virtual space can’t just be a method for separation.”

Inclusion is a linchpin that can secure recent access gains for the long term, preventing reversion to what Tischer calls a “culture of compliance,” wherein only the minimum requirements mandated by laws are met. As any entity cultivates lasting relationships with diverse and disabled stakeholders, it can apply lived experience to the expansion of what Tischer calls a “culture of access,” which “is more of an imaginative process, because what you’re trying to do is consistently take a 360-degree look at everything your organization does, from the point of view of people with different disabilities,” she says. “This doesn’t mean your imaginings are always going to be accurate, but they will keep you in the habit of understanding the scope of what you’re doing.” This approach also works as a reminder that opening a door won’t automatically pull people through it. “Just because it became more accessible, doesn’t necessarily mean it became more inclusive,” Hébert says.

“We re-found togetherness through virtual space, under duress,” Herman observes. “What we’ll do then is enhance the virtual space for ourselves while we reassess what we want in public, and that’s going to be really lovely.”

A summer 2022 Training Series on hybrid and virtual programming will be offered to current grantees of the MacArthur Funds for Culture, Equity, and the Arts at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Eligible organizations will be contacted in late April with more information about this free opportunity, led by Hoopla Communications with special guests, and how to apply.

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