Accessible Practices Exchange
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July 2003

Assess Your Assembly Areas

Man lying down covered by pieces of padding and wood being hit with a mallet.

Bringing out the 15-foot boa constrictor, placing a volunteer under wooden boards and hitting them with a giant mallet, showing slides with a talk on current science topics, or staging a theater piece starring a revived Leonardo DaVinci, are just a few of the innovative ways science centers and museums use demonstrations, talks and lectures, slides and films, and live theater to attract and engage visitors. (See ADA Standard 4.33 for Assembly Areas)

With such exciting public programs as these, you can expect your audience to be diverse. Hence, when it comes to your public programs, make them accessible from the start so that people with disabilities can fully participate. By doing so, you are neither "catering" to a small group of people, nor doing something "extra." Accessible practices improve programs overall and cultivate an enthusiastic following.

When it comes to making your public programs accessible, you need to consider both the audience and the presenters/performers. While you may not have the chance before a program to talk with attendees with disabilities to learn what accommodations they need, be sure to talk with your presenters/performers.

The suggestions below raise key accessibility points related to non-ticketed public programs typically offered by museums, parks, and libraries, but not all. To amend this gap, online links are provided below under the heading For More Information. Emergency egress, assistive listening devices, and marketing/PR will be more thoroughly discussed in future issues. Parking, signage for accessible entrances, and protruding objects were the focus of previous issues.

First things first. Choose an accessible space for your public program. As you survey your choices, these are the basic requirements to follow: counters at ticket booths and concessions with a portion at least 36 inches in length with a maximum height of 36 inches; an accessible route (no steps or steep walkways); wide aisles for maneuvering (minimum of 36 inches; 60 inches preferred for passing); level, firm, non slippery floor surfaces; no protruding objects; good lighting; a visual and audio alarm system.

In addition to a visual and audio alarm system in the programming space, your evacuation plan needs to include how you will communicate with and aid visitors with disabilities.


Diagram showing how many seats to remove to make space for wheelchairs.Know that attendees want to sit or stand comfortably and see what's taking place. Ask yourself: Will the audience stand or sit? For some demos, the audience stands. If that's the case, the view of wheelchair users may be blocked. A solution is to reserve space near the front and announce: If you need to get close to see and hear, please come forward. Leave your friends behind; you'll catch up with them later. There's sitting room up front for a few folks and a few chairs on the side. We've fed the boa, so no need to worry.

For most lectures, films, and theater performances, the audience sits. Sometimes the chairs are fixed; sometimes movable. Ask yourself: Do wheelchair users have options that allow them to sit next to their companion? Have we allowed enough space? Is there a clear exit route?

The illustration above shows how seats have been removed in an auditorium to create dispersed seating for patrons who use wheelchairs.


A variety of accessibility symbols.

Audience members want to be able to hear and understand speakers, performers, and film sound tracks. Do you have a public address system? Do you make assistive listening devices available? Do you advertise that sign language interpretation is available upon request or for specific performances? Are films and videos captioned?

Audience members want to be able to understand program content and participate just like everyone else.

Ask yourself: How much talking will there be? Work with your presenters/performers to ensure that they are aware of ways to convey their ideas to the widest possible audience. Clear, straightforward language is best. Will your speaker be using slides? Ask them to describe each fully. Be sure to have alternate formats (e.g., large print, Braille, and disk) ready and available when print materials are distributed, for PowerPoint presentations, and when audience members are asked to read or sing along.


Make sure stage, podium, dressing room, and other areas used by presenters/performers are accessible. A common barrier is a stage with no accessible access. As the following illustration shows, adding a ramp to the stage is one solution; adding a lift with fold down seat is another. On the stage are four people. Three are seated behind a table and one is standing. He/she is the sign language interpreter. Note how the dark background and the spotlight help illuminate the interpreter. Two of the speakers at the table appear to be wheelchair users.

A stage with a ramp and other accessible options.
Talk with all presenters/speakers about what works best for them. For example, some may prefer lapel mikes rather than handheld or podium mikes. Some may prefer a small table rather than a podium that cannot be adjusted. Finally, if you use a tablecloth, make sure the overhang is too short to get caught in the spokes of a wheelchair.


In theater-style assembly areas with low-light, steps and stairs can be made safer for all audience members by adding handrails, contrasting color strips on step edges, and more lighting. This illustration from the UFAS Retrofit Manual (page 325) shows these three design improvements. Making the color and texture of seats different from the floor and walls also helps prevent accidents.

Diagram showing how to make theater seating areas more accessible.

Read Others' Experiences for more ideas and please Share Your Own.


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National Science Foundation LogoAccessible Practices EXCHANGE is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grants No. ESI-9814917 and HRD 9906095. Opinions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and presenters and not necessarily those of the National Science Foundation. www.nsf.gov
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ASTC is not responsible for the enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The information presented here is intended solely as informal guidance, and is neither a determination of your legal rights or responsibilities under the ADA, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. This web site is not intended to offer legal, architectural, engineering, or similar professional advice. You should refer specific questions to an attorney, and/or national, state, and local ADA authorities.
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