Groundbreaking Program Makes the Arts More Accessible

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Two actors on stage. A man seen from the back, a woman facing him signals with her hands in sign language

The Mark Taper Forum produced Mark Medoff's Children of a Lesser God as a part of its accessibility initiative, partially funded by the NEA. Phyllis Frelich (left) won a Tony award for her performance as a deaf woman in love with a hearing man, played by John Rubinstein (right). Photo courtesy of the Mark Taper Forum

1978Today, flight attendants routinely provide information to passengers using sign language. Many movie theaters offer assisted hearing devices. Most television shows are available with closed captioning. But it hasn't always been that way.

Gordon Davidson, former Artistic Director for The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, credits an NEA-funded initiative developed in the late 1970s with providing the impetus for this dramatic change. This model project was designed to make his theater more accessible to deaf people by providing performances with sign language interpretation, publishing detailed summaries of the plays, hiring a deaf staff person to conduct community outreach and installing a TTY (teletypewriter) machine to enable deaf patrons to make ticket reservations. The Taper gained 350 new deaf subscribers in the program's first year alone. It also led to the creation of the theater's Other Voices lab, the only professional development program for theater artists with disabilities. The overall impact on the field has been enormous.

"The ramifications of this initiative are profound," states Davidson. "What this did was bring the issue of access right into the life of the theater. It opened everyone's eyes, from the crew to the administrators, and forced them to deal with it. It created a whole sensitivity to the issue. Things will never be the same."

Other model accessibility projects encouraged by Endowment funding include the development of tactile tours of art exhibits and the creation of design courses that teach how to plan and adapt cultural facilities for people with disabilities.

The Taper's consciousness-raising process made the artistic staff more receptive to a new play by Mark Medoff entitled Children of a Lesser God. The play deals with the romantic relationship between a deaf woman and a hearing man, told in both signed and spoken dialogue. The show was a huge success.
"Children of a Lesser God worked on so many levels," Davidson recalls. "It told the story in very human terms of what it is to be deaf and how perceptions of deafness may impact on people's lives."

The production transferred to Broadway, where it had a two-year run. The Taper insisted the commercial producers install a TTY machine and teach sign language to box office staff. The play won three Tonys, including a Best Actress award for Phyliss Frelich, the first time a deaf actor received this kind of recognition. Children of a Lesser God was also made into a movie, which earned Marlee Matlin an Oscar in 1987 for her film debut.

It was the democratic idea of empowerment that first appealed to Davidson. That the National Endowment for the Arts provided leadership on the issue was crucial, he says. "You can't overestimate the impact of the federal government taking on something like this; it has a tremendous ripple effect on the local level."