By Jackie Spinner
Every time Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago opens a new play, the company designates one Saturday matinee for people who may have a hard time hearing the dialogue. During this performance, patrons can view text from the play on screens placed near the stage.
Complimentary assistive listening devices and a system that works with personal hearing aids are also available. Trained staff are on hand to offer curb-to-seat assistance.
At Steppenwolf and other Chicago theaters offering accessible performances, a growing number of patrons with disabilities are benefiting from these types of modifications.
In commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Steppenwolf has been active in a yearlong initiative called ADA 25 Chicago to make the metro area more inclusive and accessible. The ADA protects the rights of people with disabilities (including those that are aging-related) in public spaces and at work.
“A lot of the work we do for older adults benefits people with disabilities,” said Bob Gallo, AARP Illinois state director and a member of the ADA 25 Chicago steering committee. “As individuals age, they are more apt or inclined to wind up with a disability.”
AARP Illinois is among more than 160 civic partners that have come together to commemorate and advance the landmark law.
Throughout the year, these community organizations, advocacy groups, government agencies and businesses are hosting events and taking part in initiatives that not only celebrate the diversity of individuals with disabilities but also find ways to create more opportunities to include them in cultural events and the workplace.
Upcoming events include an online seminar on autism for libraries, a panel discussion on improving access at historic buildings, and performances by a company of dancers with and without disabilities. For the full list, go to ada25chicago.org/calendar.
1 in 10 have disabilities
Gene Horcher, a retired rehabilitation counselor who lives in Chicago, said he is able to remain active because so many public spaces are accessible. Horcher, who turns 78 this month, has developed vision and hearing impairments as he’s aged.
“I go out to dinner,” he said. “I go out to events. I’m out every day. I have no hesitation going most places in Chicago.”
More than 1 in 10 Illinois residents have some kind of disability, according to ADA 25 Chicago. That includes older residents. By 2030, the number of people 65 or older nationwide is expected to reach more than72 million, nearly 20 percent of the population.
“My wife and I go to a lot of theater in Chicago,” said the AARP’s Gallo. “Most of the folks in the theaters have this same platinum blonde hair that I do. What happens when you are 75, 85 or 90? Are these places you are going to be able to access comfortably?”
Older people make up more than half of the visitors to the city’s cultural institutions, which is why providing better access is a key part of ADA 25 Chicago, said Emily J. Harris, executive director of the initiative. “It’s really about creating and keeping audiences.”
As part of the yearlong commemoration, the city is highlighting the accessibility at Millennium Park in downtown Chicago, a place where many of the city’s largest festivals and outdoor events take place in the summer and fall. An exhibit at the park noting its universal design and accessibility features runs through the end of this month.
Karen Tamley, the mayor’s commissioner for people with disabilities, said many of the city’s efforts to be more accessible and inclusive to individuals with disabilities ultimately benefit seniors, too.
Some of the recent measures include adding elevators to train stations that previously could be accessed only by stairs, having more audio-visual announcements on buses and requiring more taxicabs to be wheelchair-accessible.
The city has also worked to make sure that all aspects of its emergency planning—communications, evacuation and sheltering—include those with disabilities, Tamley said.
“It’s not just about people who have disabilities now,” she said. “It’s about people who age.”
Jackie Spinner is a writer living in Chicago.