How to Host an Accessible Arts Event

The arts are an important, enriching part of our lives, and hosting an event – whether it be a stage production, a book reading, a concert, or a workshop – is a wonderful way to engage your community and share an experience. But when hosting a public arts event, it’s important to take the time and make sure everyone can take part, regardless of their access needs.

We’ve consulted with a few experts in the Deaf and disability community on how arts & cultural organizations in our province can host successful events that are accessible to all Manitobans.

Ask for help

“The first step is always to speak with the Deaf and disability community,” says Jenel Shaw, executive director of Arts AccessAbility Network Manitoba.

There are a number of Deaf and disability organizations and arts groups in Manitoba that provide consultations, audits, accessibility services, and training for staff, including:

These experts can help you prepare to host an event that’s more inclusive to all.

Identify barriers

Each event has a unique set of barriers to accessibility. Looking for these barriers and planning ways to reduce them is a crucial part of event-planning. This work should be started early in the process.

“Organizations that program public art events need to begin considering accessibility right when they begin to plan for the event,” says Jenel.

When identifying these barriers, it can help to break them down into five types. The Manitoba Accessibility Office defines the five types:

  • Attitudinal barriers happen when people think and act based on false assumptions.
    • Example: A receptionist talks to an individual’s support person because she or he assumes the individual with a disability will not understand.
  • Informational and communication barriers are created when information is offered in a form that suits some, but not all, of the population.
    • Example: Print that is too small for some people to read and public address systems that alert only people who can hear the message.
  • Technological barriers occur when technology, or the way it is used, cannot be accessed by people with disabilities.
    • Example: Websites not accessible to people who are blind or have impaired vision and use screen reader software.
  • Systemic barriers are policies, practices or procedures that result in some people receiving unequal access or being excluded.
    • Example: Eligibility criteria that effectively exclude people based on a disability, such as requiring a job applicant to have a driver’s license even though there are ways to reorganize a job to use another form of transportation.
  • Physical and architectural barriers are physical obstacles that make it difficult for some to easily access a place.
    • Example: A door knob that cannot be turned by a person with limited mobility or strength, or a hallway or door that is too narrow to allow a person who uses a wheelchair to pass through safely.

Depending on the type of your event you are hosting and what artistic mediums are being presented, barriers to accessibility can change. For example, an in-person event can have a very different set of challenges than an online event, but both require an in-depth review with a lens of accessibility.

“Reducing tactile barriers and obstacles that experientially impede on the appreciation of the event or programming is the first step to becoming more accessible and/or inclusive,” says Nigel Bart, founder of Artbeat Studio.

Consider different access needs

The Deaf and disability community is not a monolith, and people living with different disabilities have different needs.

For example:

  • people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing may need American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation or live captioning for events with audio;
  • people who use mobility aids can be excluded by physically inaccessible venues;
  • hard-to-read websites and promotional materials can exclude people who are Blind or have low vision.

Jenel says that technology has “exciting possibilities.”

“Using QR codes to link to an audio or ASL version of art statements and art information is very cost effective,” she suggests. “A cost-effective version of a virtual tour can see staff use tablets or cell phones to provide personal or group tours over video calls.”

Spotlight artists who are Deaf or living with a disability

It’s important to look at the art or content you’re presenting at your event and make sure that it’s inclusive of people who are Deaf or living with a disability. Ableism, which is discrimination against people living with disabilities, can too often appear in art through harmful stereotypes, exploitation, misrepresentation, and erasure.

“If the content of the work you’re creating is insulting to the community, every other measure put in place to make your work accessible is irrelevant,” says Debbie Patterson, artistic director of Sick + Twisted Theatre. “If you’re creating work that imagines a world where disability doesn’t exist, there’s no reason for us to show up.”

Inclusion doesn’t end at the audience! Making sure that artists who are Deaf or living with a disability are represented in your programming is key to ensuring your event is inclusive.

“The biggest thing you can do to make your work more accessible is to engage disabled artists, create development opportunities for disabled artists, and initiate collaborative exchanges with disabled artists,” says Debbie.

Engage Deaf and disability communities

“Spending time with marginalized or disadvantaged people to gain appreciation for their lives and belief systems is paramount,” says Nigel.

Creating an environment that is welcoming of people who are D/deaf or living with a disability can take time, energy, and dedication, particularly if those spaces or events haven’t been accessible or inclusive in the past.

“It’s not enough to offer audio description for vision impaired audiences and expect them to all show up in droves,” says Debbie. “If you’ve never made your work accessible to a population, if a group of people has never felt welcome at your events, you need to cultivate those relationships.”

Follow the Accessibility for Manitobans Act

Did you know there is legislation in Manitoba designed to help remove barriers affecting people living with disabilities?

As a baseline, your event should comply with the Accessibility for Manitobans Act. As of 2018, if you are a part of a business or non-profit organization that has at least one employee, you must meet the Accessibility Standard for Customer Service.

Visit and familiarize yourself with these standards of accessibility! They offer helpful resources for organizations, including an Event Planning Checklist, FAQs, policies, and handbooks.

At the Manitoba Arts Council, we’re committed to making sure our events, resources, and services are accessible for all. We’ve still got a lot of work ahead of us to meet this goal, but we hope this resource has been helpful!

For more information on MAC’s commitment to accessibility, read our Accessibility Plan, 2022-2024.