Leading the field - Betty Siegel

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Friday, 18 July 2014 09:28am

Betty Siegel, Director of VSA and Accessibility at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, is a driving force in accessible arts across America. Her wealth of experience makes her a prime candidate for our 'experts in access' series. Ally Woodford, one of Media Access Australia's project managers, took the opportunity to interview Betty as she prepares for the upcoming LEAD conference.

1. What is your role and how long have you been in it?

My title, currently, is Director of VSA and Accessibility. I started here at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. 15 years ago in February of 1999 with the Title of Manager of Accessibility. It has been fortunate that the Center saw the value of this work and over the next few years the Accessibility program grew to have 3 full time staff and many wonderful volunteer staff members. Three years ago we expanded to incorporate VSA and its programs and 7 more staff members. (VSA - formerly known as 'Very Special Arts', has a 40 year history of  providing opportunities for people with disabilities of all ages to learn through, participate in and enjoy the arts.)

2. What attracted you to the role initially?

The position at the Kennedy Center was attractive because of the potential it offered, at the national and international level, to affect the way that the cultural community was engaged with the civil, social and human rights of people with disabilities and older adults. My initial engagement with the world of disability and cultural access was really quite accidental. I had been working part-time at Arena Stage (also in D.C.) and asked my supervisor if there was any way I might be considered for full-time employment. He offered me the opportunity to move into a full-time position which included taking over the programs and services Arena had been developing to be more inclusive of patrons with disabilities. I had no idea that this would become a passion and life-time career for me.

3. Can you tell us a little about your background prior to working at the Kennedy Center and was your training in the arts, accessibility or a combination of things?

At the age of five I fell in love with the theatre. My first acting role, which I remember vividly, was as a magic dwarf who loved to fish and talked in rhyme. Fast forward, my love of theatre led me to get an undergraduate degree in theatre arts. While in college, I tried out all kinds of things - acting, arts administration, theatre of children and youth, costume design and more. My first job out of college was as a wardrobe mistress for the Houston Grand Opera touring opera company, Texas Opera Theatre. My second job was at Arena Stage as a theatre manager. It was there that I realised I really enjoyed working the front-of-house and where, by accident, luck or fate I found my passion in working to make the cultural arts accessible.

My training was experiential and hands on. There wasn't any place to go and get training or a degree in cultural access - the field in the U.S. was literally being created, spurred on by federal legislation, as each venue or person involved figured it out. I didn't realise, until many years later, that being in D.C. meant that my mentors, the people I learned from and the community members who provided advice and guidance, were often the pioneers and leaders in the field of disability rights.

Much later - actually quite recently - I went back to school to get my law degree. I thought it would be useful in applying the legal framework to the work we do around civil and human rights.

4. The annual LEAD conference is coming up in August. What is the Kennedy Center's involvement in this event?

The Kennedy Center administers, sponsors and hosts the LEAD conference annually. In 2000, the Center convened a group of 25 arts administrators to look at what was going on in the field of cultural access. They were so excited at meeting each other, sharing experiences and practices, and generally finding others who were passionate and committed to cultural access that they wanted to meet annually. So the Kennedy Center stepped up to support them and create a way to share the wealth of knowledge in the field and to provide training and guidance for those interested in making sure that the arts and cultural experiences were accessible to people with disabilities. I am very proud of the role that LEAD plays in shaping the field by convening and connecting passionate people around the world and supporting access to culture.

5. As a venue that hires its spaces to performance companies, how is accessibility (captions and audio description) mandated and who is responsible for the services?

Internally, the Center's upper management supports accessibility and, we've found, that most of the staff at various levels do too. That means that we've also got strong policies, procedures and practices in place for ensuring that accessibility, accommodations and services to our patrons with disabilities is integral to all activities here at the Center.

With those organisations that rent space here or producers who bring shows to the Center, our contracts and agreements always outline our obligations and their obligations to comply with federal law and with our internal policies for accessibility. The Center's accessibility staff take on the responsibility for providing the services and accommodations to ensure that the quality and commitment to our audiences is respected. Our patrons have a relationship with us and hold us to account for ensuring that their experience is a good one.

6. You’re one of our access heroes - who are yours?

I talk to and meet so many people who work behind the scenes pursuing the goal of inclusion. They've taken this on because they really do believe that it is the right thing to do. I think they are my access heroes - making huge strides by taking small but persistent steps forward.

There are the many people who have been mentors and teachers, the ones willing to take time to explain, answer questions, provide advice and give guidance to others. They are also my access heroes.

7. What's the most exciting accessible arts development you've seen either across the USA or at the Kennedy Center?

In the U.S. it is really exciting to see how earlier legislation impacted later legislation to produce the Americans with Disabilities Act. I see the impact particularly when I give seminars to the college interns who come through the Kennedy Center on their way to becoming the arts administrators of the future. They really are amazed that anyone would consider discriminating against people with disabilities, and they really do see this as a social justice issue that the arts can take on. I find the change as reflected through the eyes to be so encouraging!

The other thing I find really exciting is that there is now a cadre of people across the globe who care about the issues of accessibility to the arts and culture. I love the way that we all encourage one another and look to each other for promising practices and guidance. That is really an exciting development!

8. The Kennedy Center is one of the world's 'poster children' for accessible venues. Do you think you can raise the bar higher?

The beauty of accessibility is that it isn't static. There is always something new or different to be tried, a way to tweak or improve, and the opportunity to seek better ways of ensuring access and honouring the rights of people with disabilities. It is really great to be in a place and at a time, and to work with incredible people from both the disability and cultural communities to see what we can do together!

Betty Siegel will be presenting at the annual LEAD conference in Chicago from August 1-6. As an expert in access, we are sure her presentation on 'Basics: Planning for Accessibility' will be an insightful and engaging one.

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