Broadway to be More Accommodating

John Hockenberry wrote about his experience in an inaccessible New York theater.

John Hockenberry wrote about his experience in an inaccessible New York theater.

Good news for Broadway lovers: some theaters are going to be more accessible.

The feds have brokered an agreement with the powerful Nederlander Organization to improve access at nine of its Broadway theaters after finding numerous ADA violations.

It took years of negotiation, but the company has agreed to add wheelchair seating locations; provide more space for people who can transfer from their wheelchairs into seats; and eliminate design and architectural barriers that make it difficult for disabled people to access restrooms, concession counters, waiting areas and box offices in the theaters, according to the ArtsBeat blog on The New York Times’ web site.

Seems reasonable to me.

“In addition, the company — which owns and operates theaters including the Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and the Neil Simon, will pay a $45,000 civil penalty,” the blog reported.

For as far back as I can remember, attending a Broadway play has been at the top of my bucket list. I know many people who travel to New York City just to see the shows. None of them use a wheelchair, of course, because access problems inside and sometimes outside the theaters are  legendary.

The Nederlander theaters are, for the most part, in older buildings built more than a century ago. And since old buildings are often deemed “historic,” there are ways (legal? moral?) for owners to get around the laws when it comes to making them accessible.

It certainly doesn’t help our cause when one comment to the Artsbeat blog read: “Well if it costs money and would affect the profit margin, it really shouldn’t be done. Theater is about money and, besides, how many crippled people actually go to the theater?”

That was written by a Bob Davis of Washington, D.C. If you run into him you might want to give him a dose of reality. If I run into him, he’ll get more than that.

In 1992,  journalist John Hockenberry wrote a piece  for The New York Times that put a glaring spotlight on the inaccessibility of New York’s theaters. (Hockenberry was in a car crash at the age of 19, and has forged a successful career as a reporter covering stories all over the world for NBC News, ABC News and National Public Radio.)

He wrote: “Two minutes before curtain time the house manager emerged from a white door with a copy of the theater’s ‘Policy for Disabled Patrons.’ He abruptly told me to leave the theater. I was shocked and asked why. … He mentioned stairs … and noted that since I could not walk and had not brought my own crew with me that it was impossible to seat me. I said that there was no problem and that I would show him how to get me up the stairs with the help of the usher standing next to him.

“He said in a loud voice audible to everyone around us: ‘Sir, we are not allowed to touch you. Our staff is not allowed to do that. … You are a fire hazard, sir.’ …  Only moments before I had been a component of his cash flow. I grabbed his collar and told him what he could do with his Policy for Disabled Patrons. I was easily overpowered and ushered, the only ushering I would experience that night, to the 52d Street sidewalk.”

Hockenberry’s nightmare experience was at the Virginia Theatre (since renamed the August Wilson Theatre), which is not one of the Nederlander playhouses. Still, it represents a typical encounter for a wheeler brave enough to show up at a Broadway theater.

But that was then — and this is now and after far too many decades, change is happening. Access improvements will be phased in over three years at the nine Nederlander theaters. In 2017, I plan to  see my first Broadway show!

 

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