January 10, 2021
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.
This episode was produced by Aspire Inclusive Solutions and engineered, edited and mixed by Subframe Sound with music courtesy of Nealle DiPaolo.
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…
Hi, this is Hillary Pearson. I am the senior manager of operations and accessibility services for the Harris Theater in Chicago.
My name is Charlotte Gruman, I go by Chuck, and I’m an accessibility advocate and consultant in Chicago.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Now, Chuck & Hillary will share more about their personal journeys. First, here’s 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.
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.
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.
And now, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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