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TBA Online: News & Features: December 2013

Understanding ADA Today

Friday, November 15, 2013   (0 Comments)
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By Robin Dolan

In March 2010, the US Department of Justice revised the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and many of these changes directly affected performing arts venues. Bay Area box offices learned about these at the 2011 INTIX International Ticketing Association conference in San Francisco. These topics have not been covered in a strictly theatrical context, although the Theatre Communications Group website offers resource material to members if one contacts them.

Photo: "Segway" by Jura Ristolainen on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

Being ADA accessible refers to providing equal access to the venue, to processes, and to participation in the event. An organization must make its best effort to accommodate people, unless to do so is a fundamental alteration or creates a safety hazard. This can also refer to restrooms, concessions and parking, or having appropriate heights for water fountains and tables. Many don't know that five percent of aisle seats should have folding or removable armrests and be close to an accessible route. It's important to check with reliable sources that a venue is compliant, as even some architects have incorrect information.

One change in 2010 was the number of required wheelchair seats. They are now:

Venue capacity / # of wheelchair seats required (plus one companion seat)
4 to 25 seats / 1
26 to 50 / 2
51 to 150 / 4
151 to 300 / 5
301 to 500 / 6
501 to 5000 / 6, plus 1 for each 150, or fraction thereof, between 501 through 5000

If a theatre is in compliance with the 1991 Design Standard then it is in a "Safe Harbor," which means that it doesn't have to renovate or change anything in order to comply with the 2010 standard. However, if that theatre does a renovation or remodel, its standards change.

John Wilkins experienced this the hard way when trying to improve the performing space for the Last Planet Theatre. What started as an expensive project, once begun, became prohibitive, as the required ADA, seismic and electrical improvements were added. But it was too late by then, and they had to shut down the theatre. John says that he often notices how other theatres are not compliant, and that some spaces "look like crap, but it's probably because they're afraid to touch anything and have all the codes slap in."

The principal 2010 regulations important to theatres involve ticketing. They can be found here. The main changes are:

Equal access: Patrons must be able to book their seats in the same way any other patron buys them. If patrons can purchase specific seats online, accessible seats must be available online too, and in the same hours they're available for others. Asking patrons to contact the box office during office hours to purchase wheelchair seating is not compliant.

Proportionate pricing: Accessible seating should be priced proportionally to the other seats in the venue: If 40% of the tickets in the house are sold at a high price, and 60% at a lower price, you must offer 60% of the accessible seating at the lower price. However if all the wheelchair seats are in the lowest priced section, all the seats should be at the lowest price.

Multiple seats: Patrons can purchase up to three companion seats alongside a wheelchair seat.

Easily identifiable: Accessible seating must be easily identified. If a website or marketing materials include a map of the theatre, the location of these seats must be clearly marked.

Secondary markets & transferable: A venue must accommodate patrons needing accessible seating if their tickets are purchased through a secondary ticket vendor such as Goldstar. However, a patron who has purchased accessible seats can sell or give them to someone else who doesn't need these seats.

Attestation: A venue cannot ask a patron what is the nature of their disability. But one can ask patrons to attest that there is someone in their party who requires the use or features of an accessible seat.

Releasing accessible seats: A venue can define for itself when it is "sold out," which helps to determine when wheelchair seats can be released for sale. The options are:

• If all seats are sold out, these seats can be released for regular sale.

• If all seats in a specific section are sold out, the accessible seats in that section can be released.

• If all seats in a specific price range are sold out, the accessible seats in that price range can be sold.

People get scared talking about ADA regulations. Many are afraid of being expected to spend beyond their budget, or of being sued. Betty Siegel at the Kennedy Center, who presented at the INTIX conference, recommended that theatre companies create a written policy and budget for accommodating special needs, in order to have a legal document on hand for reference. In this document, theatres can state how they define "sold out," freeing them to release seats.

Theatre companies may be nervous about putting wheelchair seats on sale on the internet, when they also need to ensure they have seats available for patrons who come to the theatre needing wheelchair seats without having booked them earlier. One way to aid this is to sell only a few of your accessible seats online. Ticketing software will have different ways of accommodating this. In 2010, California Shakespeare Theater began selling accessible seats online by making a few changes. The box office created a specific wheelchair seating that section patrons could select. The checkout page was also changed, requiring patrons to agree to updated "Terms & Conditions" when completing a sale. These terms include an attestation saying, "By selecting wheelchair seats, you agree that someone in your party has need of accessible seating due to a disability. Cal Shakes reserves the right to relocate any patrons who may have mistakenly purchased these tickets." In this way, the theatre is now compliant.

Other companies are presently working on making similar changes. The Aurora Theatre is in the process of adding the location of its wheelchair seats to its online maps, and changing its pages similarly to make accessible seats for sale online.

What changes might your company need to make? It's worthwhile to consider how compliant your organization is. Organizations must provide "effective communication" to patrons, which may mean offering assistive listening devices, open captioning, visual aids, special phone services such as TTY, or ensuring that your website is formatted for screenreader software.

There are a few ADA allowances that aren't seen often in the Bay Area but are nonetheless perfectly legal. Service animals are usually dogs. But, according to the ADA, miniature horses can also serve, with some limitations. One cannot ask for proof that an animal is a service animal, but you can ask what service it provides. Patrons can also use certain mobility devices, such as a wheelchair, scooter, Segway or golf cart. Disney has actually been sued for not accommodating a Segway. Imagine a miniature pony on Muni or a Segway rider at the Opera House!

Robin Dolan is the audience services manager at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley.