Attitudes about disabilities and accessibility are changing, and one local volunteer group is leading the charge.
The Arts and Culture Accessibility Collaborative (ACAC), formed last year by MindsEye Radio, a United Way supported agency, is working to make St. Louis’ arts and culture scene more accessible for people with disabilities as visitors, patrons, artists, employees and volunteers.
“We have so many great cultural institutions in our region,” said Jason Frazier, president and CEO at MindsEye Radio. “We have one of the best zoos. We have one of the only outdoor theatres where great shows come every year. We want everyone to be able to enjoy it—not just people who are sighted, not just people who are able to walk through the doors without a wheelchair. We want everybody to take part in what’s going on.”
The group brings together local agencies that support people with disabilities, including Paraquad; DEAF, Inc.; Starkloff Disability Institute; and LAMP Interpreting Services, with local cultural institutions like The Muny; Missouri History Museum; Saint Louis Art Museum; Saint Louis Science Center; Stifel Theater and even the new aquarium under construction at Union Station.
At quarterly forums, agencies, cultural institutions and people with and without disabilities share best practices, questions and ideas—anything from universal design in museum exhibits to making websites more compatible with assistive technologies. About 50 people attended the first forum, sparking conversations about what works and areas for improvement, said Rachel Melton, community outreach coordinator at MindsEye Radio.
“After every meeting my mind is buzzing with ideas and information,” Melton said. “St. Louis has so much to offer, and our community is ready to do this work.”
“There are people who want to help, but they don’t know how,” Frazier added. “This is a safe space where you can ask those questions and get the answers from experts in those fields. It’s also helping to put the agencies together to talk. ‘You work with this population, and I work with this population. Let’s see what we can do to make this work, so we have answers to these questions in the future.’”
These discussions come as people with and without disabilities are calling for change in recent years, often using social media to connect and spread the word, Frazier said. More and more, exhibits are designed to accommodate wheelchairs, theaters are hosting sensory-friendly shows and museums are including touchable artifacts.
After representatives from the St. Louis Zoo attended an ACAC meeting, they got connected with MindsEye Radio to train interpretive guides in providing audio description. The agency was able to host a trip to the Zoo for more than 60 people, Fraizer said. Some had not been to the Zoo since they lost their sight; for others, it was their first trip ever.
“You see a crowd of people all having the same experience, no matter their ability,” Frazier said. “That’s what we’re trying to get to. Whether you’re onstage, offstage or touring a museum, you’re still able to enjoy it, no matter your ability.”
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Emily Becherer is a proud native St. Louisan, writer and lover of stories in all their forms. Faced with a captivating question, she will research her way down a rabbit hole and emerge with words that educate and inspire. You can probably find her taking in a musical, bingeing through a new podcast series, exploring the trails at local parks or curating her extensive library of Spotify playlists.