ACCESSIBLE ROUTES TO STAGES
Summary: In Questions 1-3, the Department asks questions about the new proposed ADAAG requirement, section 202.2.6, which requires that assembly areas provide direct access from the seating assembly area to the performance area. With respect to this change, the Department asks: (1) what are the actual costs and practical benefits, particularly in alterations; (2) should the Access Board consider the issue further; (3) whether because of local law or policy, entities already provide direct stage access; and (4) whether entity’s would postpone making alterations if direct access to the stage is required. The Department requests personal or anecdotal evidence of the unquantifiable benefits people with disabilities obtain if direct access to the stage is provided. These comments focus largely on this latter request.
- Background and Answers to Re-submitting to Access Board: The need for direct access to stages has been long in coming. Important life events, e.g., graduation, awards ceremonies, and the like, require direct access to stage. Direct access to stages whether or not required by local code is rare, making the need for the proposed regulation acute.
- Examples Illustrating Importance of Direct Access:
- Collegiate Competitive Performance: Law student example.
- Graduation Ceremonies: Differences in ceremony examples.
- Audience Participation: Outlines issue audience solicited to stage, e.g., comedy and magic shows.
- Performers and Production Staff Who Use Wheelchairs: Several examples of actual performers who use wheelchairs who have unequal benefit from no stage access from audience.
- Conclusion: The Regulatory Impact Analysis by focusing only on time savings in not having to use a circuitous route to the stage -- has not given sufficient importance to the types of events requiring direct access to stages and to the educational and social impact on people who use wheelchairs who are devalued and excluded by more time-consuming and cumbersome access. Entities are protected in alterations, existing facilities and public programs by existing ADA defenses.
- Background and Answers Regarding Revisiting Access Board:
Disability rights advocates and individuals who use wheelchairs oppose re-submitting questions about stage access back to the Access Board. The process of the Access Board (and final approval of regulations by the Department) takes many years. Meanwhile, and as is illustrated in the comments below, people who use mobility devices have not been able to participate equally in activities such as graduation ceremonies, award ceremonies and audience participation programs. Advocates and individuals who use wheelchairs applaud the change in the 2004 ADAAG § 202.2.6, which will resolve this barrier to full participation by requiring a direct accessible route from assembly seating areas to stages. Examples of wheelchair users throughout the country being denied access to stages and performance areas, resulting in very unequal treatment follow:
- Examples Illustrating Importance of Direct Access:
- Collegiate Competitive Performances
In the competitive academic arena, it is routine for colleges and universities to have students make presentations from stages. For example, many law schools have mock oral arguments that require students to present to a faculty panel or panel of judges from a stage. Older auditoriums in such schools often do not provide wheelchair access to the stage. At the college level, debate teams often compete from the stage. As a result, non-disabled students ascend the stairs to the stage and present from a podium, usually with the school’s flag or crest behind them. Students who use wheelchairs are often relegated to presenting from the floor of the auditorium with the inaccessible stage and podium behind them. In a college environment where grades are based on a curve and performance is measured relative to other students in the class, students who use wheelchairs are at an extreme disadvantage. The auditoriums generally have lighting directed at the speaker behind the podium, and those judging or grading the student usually sit in a place in the auditorium where they have direct eye contact with the speaker. Giving a presentation for a grade from four or more feet below the stage level in an area not intended for performance automatically detracts from the speaker’s presentation and may cause the judge or grader to focus on the speaker’s disability rather than the argument presented. If existing colleges or those about to undertake alterations are required to provide access to stages under the existing facilities, alterations, new construction or program access standards, students who use wheelchairs will be able to compete with their peers on an equal footing. Once a ramp (or other means of vertical access) to the stage in an auditorium is provided from the audience assembly area, the auditorium can be used for any event sponsored by the college, or by outside entities seeking to hold public events there. The venue will provide equal access for any event during which people are likely to access the stage from the audience.
(Disability rights advocates far prefer that when alterations are made in the context of stages, a ramp be installed rather than a platform lift, even though the latter are permitted for use in accessible routes in alterations currently, see, e.g., 28 C.F.R., pt. 36, app. A § 4.1.6(g), and may be permitted as a component of an accessible route in new construction and existing buildings under proposed Standards § 206.7. Ramps are preferred because of the time it takes for a person in a wheelchair to enter a lift, close the door, ascend or descend, open the door and exit. In the graduation ceremony context mentioned in section I.B, a platform lift may well interrupt the ceremony and focus unwanted attention on the graduate who uses a wheelchair.)
Graduation ceremonies are routinely held in assembly areas with stages. Most older assembly areas do not provide direct access from the audience seating area to the stage. As a result, non-disabled students proceed in a line toward the stage and ascend the stairs for a ceremonial handshake and receipt of the earned certificate or diploma. Cameras snap from proud parents, siblings and spouses, and the smiling non-disabled graduate stands atop the stage with lights directed at the graduate and the presenter (a dean, professor or chancellor), while they shake hands. That moment -- when the diploma is received -- is one of the most important and memorable for parents in the lives of their children.
If access is not provided from the audience area to the stage, however, graduates who use wheelchairs either sit separately from their peers with separate arrangements made ahead of time for receipt of the diploma, or the wheelchair user lines up with other non-disabled students, but when it comes time to ascend the stairs, the student breaks out of the line, the presenter steps down from the stage and hands the diploma to the graduate. Depending on the design of the auditorium, it is likely that the graduate using a wheelchair will not be seen by audience members during this important life moment.
Even after the passage of the ADA, students who use wheelchairs report that school administrators frequently ask them if the would not mind be carried up the stairs. Not only is being carried a humiliating and degrading experience for individuals who use wheelchairs, it is also unsafe in most circumstances, e.g., school administrators who are unaware of how the mobility device works and people who use large, heavy motorized mobility devices.
Outside amphitheaters are common throughout the country. Many such theaters have fixed seating or no seating where folding chairs are provided and a stage with access only via stairs. Many such amphitheaters are owned by municipal or other governmental entities, although such venues may be privately owned. Such venues are used for concerts, theater performances, political rallies and more. Often, events are provided during which audience member seeking audience participation are provided, e.g., comedy shows, magic performances. When the only means of access is via stairs only, audience members who use wheelchairs cannot participate. This is true with respect to direct audience participation or for performers who require vertical access to the stage.
- Performers and Production Staff Who Use Wheelchairs
The following provide examples of the many problems wheelchair users who perform are involved in the production of live shows have experienced.
• A disability rights advocacy organization holds an annual celebration of the signing of the ADA and invites a performance group composed of people with disabilities, including wheelchair users to perform. The celebration is held in an outdoor municipal park with a large stage used for public events. The stage is not accessible. The host organization contracts with a vendor to provide ADA-compliant ramps. The performance group attends the event and needs to access the stage from the event. The ramps that are provided are extremely steep, and the performers who use wheelchairs must be assisted by non-disabled persons up the ramps. A sudden thunderstorm occurs, and the performers who use wheelchairs have to be assisted off the stage down the wet, steep ramps in the pouring rain.
• An experienced production manager who uses a wheelchair is hired for a theater production. The sound and lighting equipment he operates is in the seating assembly area and is accessible. The building is an old, privately-owned theater open to the public. There is no direct access to the stage. The theater owner requests the production manager make adjustments to the equipment on the stage. The theater owner has to build a ramp to allow this to happen.
• A dance company with members who use wheelchairs is invited to perform in an assembly hall with a stage that is not accessible from the audience area. The hall is in an historic building, owned by the state university and is being leased for this event by a private entity. The dance company members perform on the floor in front of the stage. The audience members seated in folding chairs cannot see the movements of the dancers on the floor in front of them.
• A performer who uses a wheelchair is in a production in which the performers must go into and interact with the audience during the show. The stage is accessible from the backstage area, but not from the audience. To get back and forth between the stage and the audience, the performer must go through a door outside the theater and in another door.
• A city completely renovates an historic auditorium it owns and remodels the entire interior of the building into a state-of-the-art performance venue. The venue is leased to performance companies and for other private uses. A wheelchair user attends an event that requires attendees to sit in the audience and then join the other attendees on the stage. To get from the wheelchair seating area to the stage, the wheelchair user must leave the wheelchair seating area, travel all the way around the orchestra level to a wheelchair lift, take the wheelchair lift up one level, travel one hundred feet to a long ramp, take the long ramp to the backstage area, wait for someone to unlock the backstage entrance, roll through the entire backstage area and on to the stage. This process takes twenty minutes.
These examples of a few wheelchair users illustrate the experiences of many. Routine (and important) life events (graduations, performances, awards ceremonies even weddings and funerals) are held in assembly areas where access to the performance area is an integral part of the ceremony. Many performances, public events, etc. also ask for or require audience participation. If the performance area is not directly connected to the wheelchair seating area, it may be impossible for a wheelchair user to access the stage even if there is an indirect accessible route.
The importance of providing access to stages for people who use wheelchairs in alterations or existing facilities or in programs operated by public entities cannot be overstated. Nevertheless, disability rights advocates and wheelchair users understand and respect that in many existing assembly areas, there may be significant costs involved in providing such access. Public entities and public accommodations remain protected by the ADA defenses of fundamental alteration, undue financial and administrative burden, readily achievable, proportional alteration cost and direct threat as applicable under Titles II and III. The public importance of equal participation of wheelchair and mobility aid users in such basic activities of American life is too great to permit any additional means of denying access.