S2. Ep. 3
Stories on Inclusion in Arts & Culture


January 10, 2021


23 minutes


Amplify Inclusion Podcast


Welcome to Amplify Inclusion, a podcast where we share authentic stories of inclusion in action.

Meet two local accessibility advocates working to advance inclusion in the arts and culture arena. Hear how mindset plays a role in the work of institutions, both internally and externally, and gain insight from their personal stories. Listen now or view the full transcript below. 


  • Hillary Pearson of the Harris Theater for Music & Dance
  • Charlotte “Chuck” Gruman of Ember

This episode was produced by Aspire Inclusive Solutions and engineered, edited and mixed by Subframe Sound with music courtesy of Nealle DiPaolo.

Full Transcript

00:00:00 Clare 

Welcome to Amplify Inclusion. I’m Clare from Aspire. Thanks for joining us as we share real stories and  conversations about the power and importance of disability inclusion. As we continue our series  examining inclusive mindset, we meet two new guests, who help us further our understanding by sharing  their personal stories and joining in group conversation. The next two episodes feature two local  accessibility advocates… 

00:00:29 Hillary 

Hi, this is Hillary Pearson. I am the senior manager of operations and accessibility services for the Harris  Theater in Chicago.  

00:00:39 Chuck 

My name is Charlotte Gruman, I go by Chuck, and I’m an accessibility advocate and consultant in Chicago. 

00:00:43 Clare 

Chuck & Hillary are focusing on greater inclusion and access among Arts and Cultural institutions. Although their work overlaps, their perspectives vary – Chuck consults with numerous institutions across  Chicagoland while Hillary is leading inclusive initiatives within the institution at which she’s employed. As  with our previous guests, I began by asking them for their definition of an inclusive mindset. 

00:01:09 Hillary 

An inclusive mindset to me is about recognizing and ensuring that space is there to say, “Oh have we  considered this experience?” It’s about knowing that some of the standard decisions that you might be  making as an organization or as a person, there’s always room for a lived experience beyond yours. And if  you have an opportunity to like stretch those muscles of including other lived experiences, that’s how you  change the attitudinal mindset and kind of start breaking down those barriers. I think having the mindset  of flexibility and being able to be curious allows you to stretch the boundaries of what you feel like is how  things should be done. And it allows you to ensure that space is there if the situation arises. It’s like you’re  never going to be able to respond well or make a shift to accommodate a need or you know, make sure  someone is engaged in what you’re doing unless you try and practice that stretching. Because going from 

0 to 180 is really difficult for any organization. So really it’s having that flexibility of mindset allows you to  lay the groundwork.  

00:02:30 Chuck 

I think the idea of an inclusive mindset is constantly challenging your own preconceived ideas and barriers  that you might not have considered in the past. We also sometimes struggle because we are often drawn  to people who are thinkers or who are speakers in the same way that we are, who exhibit the same  behaviors, who have the same thinking patterns, and especially in a workplace, that can be a super  limiting barrier. Where an inclusive mindset would be helpful is by starting from the beginning, asking  who is eliminated from the conversation, and how we can get them to be a part of it. So an inclusive  mindset means from the beginning that you are not trying to make a plan without including the people  who are supposed to be catered to. 

00:03:15 Hillary 

I think it’s important for everyone to be able to be a part of arts and culture, because that is what the  mission of arts and culture is. It is to evoke something, and it evokes something that is personal to the  individual and by not allowing everyone to participate or not providing the tools for everyone to  participate, there’s a huge segment of voices that you never get to hear and a point of view that never  gets shared. And art and culture is reactive to the society we live in; it is shaped around the society that  we’re in the people were exposed to, telling stories. And we are not telling all the stories if we aren’t including people with disabilities, if we are not including people with different lived experiences and it  lessens the value of the art if we don’t have the opportunity to explore those perspectives.  

00:04:16 Chuck 

It is very important for access and inclusion to be advanced in organizations and cultural event spaces for  multiple reasons. One- you want to make sure that you’re engaging the community that you’re involved  in. Just adhering to neurotypical viewers or let’s say a specific section of the world that’s employed or has  healthcare or is a specific religion or spirituality, if you are trying just to cater to one person you’re failing  the rest of your community.  

00:04:49 Clare 

Now, Chuck & Hillary will share more about their personal journeys. First, here’s Chuck… 

00:04:55 Chuck 

I work specifically as an accessibility consultant almost like a liaison between people who are requiring  accessible services and organizations, non-profits, and artists or organizations that want to provide  experience for people who haven’t been able to get that. A lot of my work revolves around theatrical  performances, or museum, any kind of cultural event, in order to create a welcoming experience for their  audience. So my job is not only advocating for people who are underrepresented and trying to use  assistive technology or any kind of assistive anything, but it also comes to the idea of disability and  accessibility as a social construct and how, regardless of your physical ability or mental ability, you are  being catered to you are included in the conversation and that those tools can be helpful regardless of  whether or not you identify as needing them.  

I am a neuro-divergent thinker. I personally have Sensory Processing Disorder and ADHD. I struggle with  dyspraxia and a couple of other neurological conditions or differences that are not highlighted because  it’s not seen as a physical necessity in order to provide those services. So, as a person with sensory 

processing disorder and ADHD, I feel like there are 17 channels on in my brain and every TV is on a  different one and I don’t know which volume controls what. And so often what will happen is I tell  somebody that I have Sensory Processing Disorder or ADHD, and they think “oh you’re just hyperactive,”  and that’s the extent of it. When actually it’s a hyper awareness of things going on around you and an  inability for me at least to modulate volume or intensity of those things. I often hear frequencies that are  much higher than what the human range should hear, and at the same time that doesn’t mean that I am  using assistive technology because I have for example, I- I call them hearing aids people will often argue  because they don’t make sound louder that they’re not hearing aids, when in fact they’re helping me hear  because they dampen frequencies and are using special technology that is making it possible for me to try  and understand what people are saying.  

I definitely have a little bit of a different background especially in terms of my childhood. Although I am  American both of my parents are American, I was raised in Singapore for most of my childhood and  around southeast Asia. Often some people considered that I might have Autism or that I had other  cognitive disabilities or learning disabilities and it was never decided that I should be separated from my  classroom because of those things. It meant that I had occupational therapy, it meant that I had handwriting therapy. I had cognitive behavioral therapy. I had brushing techniques. I had soundproof  headphones in a box on my chest and the teacher had a microphone. All of this was external to my  learning. So my learning wasn’t disrupted because I was struggling in the classroom. That being said, my  school made it possible for my parents to give me any tool I needed in the classroom. So I was able to sit  on a pad that had spikes on it or if I needed a jump, if I needed to get my- what we called “my wiggles”  out, I was able to do that without disrupting the class.  

00:08:19 Clare 

Chuck’s describing an inclusive learning environment where diverse needs are met without  compromising social belonging and community. I asked Chuck if she could recall other formative  experiences that helped to shape her mindset around disability.  

00:08:34 Chuck 

I also at a young age started volunteering at a shelter that was across the street from our school and a  shelter in United States and Singapore are very different. This is a home for people with disabilities and  differences, sometimes cognitive sometimes physical. A lot of the patients had leprosy. And I started  doing my reading training there. Reading to people or having conversations with people or doing games  with people. So my experience and how I understood it at a young age came from having exposure to  people with disabilities and realizing that they’re people first, you know, they they are people. Which I  think was something that if I hadn’t had experience as a young person with other people like me, I don’t  know what my my understanding of it would be. So I’m very very grateful for that.  The idea that I was exposed to it at such a young age did really really help me in terms of my education  and training and my passion for making things accessible, especially because when I moved to the United  States, I’ve noticed such a massive lack in it. I noticed that there was a very large difference in what  people who were maybe identified as being on the Autism spectrum or who identified as being neuro divergent were offered in terms of cultural spaces. And when I came to the US I was pretty struck by the  idea that theaters or organizations wouldn’t offer the services until someone had come to them and  identified themselves as needing it.  

So I was very lucky when I was attending University, someone from a very highly regarded theater here in  Chicago came to speak our class about the importance of cultural accessibility and I wept. And I went up  to him and I asked “how do I get involved? Please, I will do anything. This is exactly what I want to do. My 

hope is to be at the intersection of art and accessibility. How can I help you?” And I was lucky enough to  be brought on for my first consultancy. It was a learning curve- a high learning curve, but that led to a  much larger view of accessibility and how to create services for people. So through that experience I was  kind of rocket launched into the world. That was a realization for me that I could make a difference, not  only being a part of a team, but me personally. My skill-set, my abilities.  

My mindset has completely shifted since starting in this field and a lot of that has come from the  realization that regardless of how much I know or educate myself, I still won’t know everything. You can  always learn and grow from people but you have to be willing to listen. There also has to come a time  where if you feel people are not being represented or you feel like voices are not heard and you are in a  position to make that happen, you have to use your voice. You have to be heard. And you have to make  sure that the person gets a spot at the table. It’s a much much bigger thing than us individually, but as an  individual you can make a massive difference by advocating and standing up for people whose voices are  not heard. And in order to do that you have to assess who is missing from this conversation. 

00:11:47 Clare 

And now, Hillary… 

00:11:48 Hillary 

So I, like many of us in arts administration, grew up performing. I was in theater. I was in music. All the  way through college. I went to school for Opera studies here in Chicago and during that time I worked for  the concert hall at Northwestern and did a lot of customer service front of house management stuff. So it  was a natural place for me to find myself looking for opportunities in that world. The journey for me to be  operations manager and working on accessibility at the Harris started in their audience service staff and  then had an opportunity to move up to house management and was able to go from front of house really  dealing with patron interactions and customer service and flip that to more on the prep side and  operations. Really it involves day-to-day management of the facility and that’s kind of how I ended up  working more in operations and then had an opportunity to reconnect with accessibility through that  operations role because of the importance that customer service played in my life. As a kid, I think that disability to me was so in the physical construct of somebody looking different and I  don’t think I was really exposed at least not on the educational track of knowing what disability meant. So  I think that there was a lot of hesitancy when approaching someone who was different than me. My  personal touch point with disability came with- I had a cousin who had physical disabilities and cognitive  disabilities and we saw how much his mom loved him so much and was doing everything she could to  have him fully participate and I think that was a model- a good model for me as a kid and really was my  only exposure to the world of disability in a personal way. I remember we went to Cedar Point which is an  amusement park in Ohio and we were able to go around with my cousin and being able to go on all the rides because of the work that Cedar Point had done to ensure that there were options. That stuck with  me a lot as a kid cause it was like something that I love to do and he was able to participate and he was  having a blast and I think that was really a- for me without even knowing what it was- the beginning of  some attitudinal shifts of how you can participate. 

I would think that where I felt myself have more of a profound mindset shift was our theaters  involvement with the ADA 25 celebrations to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the passing of the ADA.  We were involved in a lot of the programs. We hosted a program. It led me to being able to go to the  Kennedy Center’s Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability Conference and that conference was like  eye-opening to the -nth degree. It was me as this little house manager who was coming from fully patron  world of you know, that customer service frontline and seeing all of the options and things that theaters 

and places of public accommodation can do. And I just remember being in that conference and having  just a notebook stuffed with ideas and being so overwhelmed of being like “I don’t even know where to  begin, but this is so exciting, and this is something I’ve never been exposed to or never have had to think  about because of my privilege” and that was a huge shift for me. I think what motivated me to really get  started was the fact that I had just moved into a position of now being on the operation side. So I felt like  I had been given the power to make change by going to this conference and going alone as the  representative. So I think it started coming from a place of familiarity, and that was what I was able to  latch onto in this sea of really overwhelming and great information. And that’s where I started. So what I  did first was I did a presentation when I came back to the theater of some of the key like- here are things I  think we can do now, here are things I think we can do later. I have great leadership at the Harris and, you  know, I was able to talk to my manager about how do I frame this conversation? And so I did it sort of in a  casual sort of ‘lunch and learn’ type setting with some staff who were interested and really was able to be  like, this is what I think we can do and then how do I start doing it? So that was probably step one for us  was just getting it into the sort of like a casual context with different people from different departments  in the room. 

The initial response was people were excited. They took in the information and they really were  interested in seeing what could be done. I think that with that, though, you have to have the intent  behind it. So as much as you can be excited by something, you also have to do some of your own work to  start shifting that mindset. It can’t be something that happens in a 45-minute meeting, but I think it was  the start of knowing, “Okay. Now, how do we start layering this in?” So since we started making some  broad initiatives with access and inclusion, really we we started with the training. We started with trying  to make sure that front-line staff really had a good sense of language and we all had kind of a shared  lexicon. And that’s really how we started was layering that training, and then from there it became lets  layer that training one more level out and have full time staff be a part of that bring in more people from  the organization. Make this sort of a required piece of your cultural onboarding, and that was a couple of  years of really building that out.  

I think creating a space for people to feel that they could really honestly engage in training and discussion  around disability and accessibility really lets people know that not everyone’s at the same level. And if you  aren’t at the level of maybe someone else who’s gone through it, that’s not bad. It’s a journey like there’s  it’s always going to be things that we can learn more and learn better. And I think it allows part-time staff  

an opportunity to show where they’ve learned and make suggestions from their own lived experiences.  And what’s been incredible about it is that you learn about people’s own exposure to disability in their  personal lives, in their professional lives and how that has shaped them or what takeaways they have to  make an organization better.  

00:18:32 Clare 

Hillary’s illustrating how institutional change is incremental but can start from the passion and  commitment of a single person. I asked Hillary how the Harris Theater is continuing to  bridge staff mindset with action. 

00:18:47 Hillary 

And then we’re able to be in a spot to flip it more inward and think about programmatically what can we  do? What do we have control over? So sensory-friendly programming started to be an avenue that we  explored and we were able to curate some sensory-friendly programming. We were able then to layer  that with more programmatic access with- we’re doing an ASL interpreted performance. We are doing an  audio-described performance. We’re growing it and we’re now able to be in a place where because of 

those early pieces because of introducing staff to it making this something that full-time staff has as part  of their cultural competency and seeing how it’s being championed in different departments. I’ve  definitely seen confidence grow in interacting with people with disabilities from our frontline staff for  sure. I think that has a lot to do with that brave space or safe space training model. The biggest thing that  we hear is people either having disabilities are coming with family members with disabilities who say we  always feel like we’re a burden to the cultural institutions that were at. So the goal and that kind of ties  back into that Universal approach is about knowing that you have the options there. A truly inclusive  world, it is about being able to provide people with all of the options to make their experience a fulfilling  experience in whatever they’re engaging with. It’s being able to make it so disability doesn’t exist in the  space because disability only exists when there’s that door that won’t open with a push button. You put  that push button there and there is no disability. So it’s being able to institutionally, systemically eliminate  barriers and know that that is not the burden of the individual who needs the tool. It is the burden of the  institutions and if all the institutions know that it is their responsibility to carry, then that’s how we we get  to that point. 

I think what I’m most proud of the connections I’ve been able to make both internally and externally with  people who are allies, who are advocates for this work. Being able to introduce other staff members to  LEAD, the conference, and have them go and come back and engage and think about how that affects  their work and just being able to really see how everyone can ask the question unprompted- how does  access and inclusion play a role in my job? In terms of some future goals, I think it is so critical to be able  to see yourself reflected in arts and culture and I would love to see our institution either presenting or  working to bring in companies that have artists with disabilities on a much more regular basis. And I also  think hiring is a super critical thing that we need to be across-the-board arts and culturally exploring  hiring folks with disabilities. You know, how do we create opportunities and in-roads for folks to work in  arts and culture and be represented.  

If I could give my younger version of my self advice- it is not something that can be done all at once – the  mindset shift is incremental and it is not something that can be done alone. It’s about the incremental  changes. So what are the bite-sized things that you can do? What are the conversations you can start  having where in a year maybe one thing has changed, but that one thing could impact a whole group of  people that you had no idea you weren’t servicing before. 

00:22:127 Clare 

I’d like to thank Chuck & Hillary for sharing their stories with us. Next time, they’ll join me again for a  group conversation about how productive dialogue can move inclusion forward. Until then, stay  connected with us at aspirechicago.com – and be a part of the inclusive movement by rating and  subscribing to Amplify Inclusion. Thanks for joining us! This episode was produced by the Inclusive  Solutions team and co-produced and engineered by Subframe Sound.

S6. Ep. 4<br>Emily Voorde

Amplify Inclusion Podcast

S6. Ep. 4
Emily Voorde

It’s the 30th episode of Amplify Inclusion! Emily Voorde, Founder and CEO of INTO Strategies, reflects on her journey of… Read More

S6. Ep. 3<br>Jordyn Zimmerman

Amplify Inclusion Podcast

S6. Ep. 3
Jordyn Zimmerman

Jordyn Zimmerman, nonspeaking autistic advocate, shares her personal experience and insights on inclusion and belonging. Check out the episode now… Read More

Amplify Inclusion Podcast

S6. Ep. 2
InfiniTeach | Aliyah, Ned & Katie

Welcome to Amplify Inclusion, a podcast where we share authentic stories of inclusion in action. Aliyah Rich, Ned Williams and Katie Hench… Read More

Aspire logo
arrow up
Be Included

Get news and events information.