Accommodating Audience Members

By Robyn Guilliams Dear Law and Disorder, I run a small nonprofit presenting organization. We recently received an email from a patron who wanted to attend a particular performance, and he asked if we provide accommodations for the deaf.  He indicated that either an American Sign Language interpreter or some sort of close captioning system would suffice.  We responded and told him that we did not provide those sorts of accommodations because we can’t afford it.  We suggested that he reserve a seat towards the front of the venue to enhance his ability to see the performance without any interference.  He then wrote back, stating that he was making a request for a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act and asking that we respond with accommodation specifications within 48 hours. I don’t believe that this is a reasonable request for a nonprofit organization.  We don’t have the capability for close captioning, and we would be required to spend $500 to $800 on a sign interpreter.  How should I respond?? You should respond that your organization would be happy to provide a sign interpreter for this gentleman! The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requires that all “public accommodations” – that is, virtually any facility that is open to the public – provide auxiliary aids and services to ensure effective communication access to their deaf and hearing-impaired patrons and customers.  This applies to for-profit businesses and nonprofits, both large and small!  For a theater or other performing arts venue, the most appropriate auxiliary aids usually are sign language interpreters and real-time close captioning devices. The idea behind the ADA is to ensure that no one with a disability is excluded, denied services, segregated or otherwise treated differently than others because of barriers or the absence of auxiliary aids. While the cost of a sign interpreter may seem daunting to small organizations, consider it a cost of doing business (yes, nonprofits – you are “doing business” by presenting performing arts presentations to the public!) and factor that cost into your budget. The ADA does provide an exception to the auxiliary aids requirement if providing these aids would result in an “undue burden” (i.e., “significant difficulty or expense”) to the business.  However, this “burden” must be truly significant for the exception to apply. Must every venue install high-tech close-captioning technology to accommodate the deaf and hearing impaired?  No.  Nor must a venue hire an ASL interpreter for every performance.  A patron who arrives at a performance and demands an auxiliary aid with no advance notice may be out of luck.  However, when a patron makes a timely request for a sign language interpreter, the venue must make its best efforts to fulfill that request. A few other notes to keep in mind: The “reasonable accommodations” (e.g., the sign language interpreter) must be paid for by the place of public accommodation. The costs cannot be passed on to the individual with a disability! A place of public accommodation must provide services in an “integrated” setting.  This means that the deaf or hearing-impaired patron cannot be excluded from enjoying a performance along with the rest of the audience.  As an example, it’s not acceptable to set up a close-captioned television feed in an area separate and apart from where the performance is happening.  If close-captioning is offered, it must allow the hearing-impaired patron to enjoy the performance in the same space as the rest of the audience. The deaf or hearing-impaired patron has the choice of which accommodation best fits his or her communication needs; however, an equally effective substitute may be provided if the original request is unreasonable or unfillable. In theory, the ADA codifies what should already be pervasive throughout the performing arts: an embrace of inclusivity. More practically, whether or not you agree with the ADA, the cost of ADA compliance is far less than the costs of non-compliance, which can be excessive. There are grants and foundations which may available to help you offset the costs of accommodating your disabled patrons. This may also be a good time to use this occasion to review your ADA policies and procedures, including how your staff and volunteers respond to ADA compliance requests and patrons with special needs. An insensitive response can send an embarrassed or angry patron directly to an attorney. As with any issue, it’s always easier to address problems and complaints before they arise. ________________________________________________________________ For additional information and resources on this and other legal and business issues for the performing arts, visit To ask your own question, write to All questions on any topic related to legal and business issues will be welcome. However, please post only general questions or hypotheticals. GG Arts Law reserves the right to alter, edit or, amend questions to focus on specific issues or to avoid names, circumstances, or any information that could be used to identify or embarrass a specific individual or organization. All questions will be posted anonymously. __________________________________________________________________ THE OFFICIAL DISCLAIMER: THIS IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE! The purpose of this blog is to provide general advice and guidance, not legal advice. Please consult with an attorney familiar with your specific circumstances, facts, challenges, medications, psychiatric disorders, past-lives, karmic debt, and anything else that may impact your situation before drawing any conclusions, deciding upon a course of action, sending a nasty email, filing a lawsuit, or doing anything rash!

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