Decorative Waves

How Do We Make Theatre Spaces Accessible for Power Wheelchair Users?

Actress with a disability driving around the stage in an electric wheelchair and rehearsing a performance with actors and a director in a dim theater, with a spotlight

Welcome back to another edition of Chair With Me – the blog wherein I talk about how we make things accessible for power wheelchair users such as myself.  Over the summertime, I had the amazing experience of producing and starring in a play all about sexuality and disability (in case you wondered where I went.) This intensive, six week process was absolutely incredible as it blended two of my favorite things: theater and disability. During this experience, I started to consider how we make theater properly accessible for power chairs using actors and patrons alike. 

Chair With Me Broadway babes, I have some thoughts!


Space is Important In Disability Theatre – Here’s Why  


The Access Need: Enough space for multiple power chairs to move on stage for dynamic action, and space for quick and safe costume changes both in dressing rooms and off stage. A fair and immersive viewing experience from a power chair user audience perspective. 

How You Can Act: Consult with each power chair user in the performance, take the measurements for their chairs, and walk through the space to ensure there is enough room for everyone. Hire consultants in power chairs to assess the audience amenities and seating to give feedback about how to make your space more accessible and fair to power chair users.

More Insight: Power chairs are bigger than other chairs, and when you are trying to act in a power chair on stage, you need lots of room so that you can make big gestures that your audience can see. For the show I was part of, we had three disabled actors, all of whom used power wheelchairs as our main mobility aids. Power chair users danced, turned, and zoomed fast to show them “running.” We also needed the space so we didn’t bash into each other while on stage (I definitely ran into my co-stars a few times!) 


Many theaters we reached out to didn’t have the space, nor the capacity, for accessible dressing rooms. Power chair users need more room and space for things like quick changes. Make sure if you are hiring a power chair using actors (which, of course, you should) you consider their spatial needs and consult with them to ensure they are met. 


Space is also important for theater-goers. I love going to the theater, but so much of the experience is inaccessible. Wheelchair users, especially power chair users, are almost always shoved in the back of the theater – behind everyone else, and it can be difficult to see what’s happening on the stage; you know, the entire point of the theater! By giving space to power wheelchair using theater goers, you are allowing them to be immersed in the experience, and that is what you should be aiming for. 


You Need Attendant Care Workers in The Theatre Space 


The Access Need: Actors with complex or severe disabilities require help transferring from their chairs, using the restroom, and taking breaks. Audience members in power chairs may need assistance to ensure they find the right seats and get help if they need any.

How You Can Act: Hire trained Personal Support Workers or trained attendants for both the audience and performers to ensure they have access and care.

More Insight: When I rehearsed our show this summer, we were lucky enough to have hired a Personal Support Worker who also was a theater producer. They were vital in helping us as performers function in the space. They helped to find accessible solutions in the theater that we would never have thought of, but they also made sure that we were safe; they helped us use the bathroom, transfer and rest when needed.   


Having an attendant in the space was also super important in providing accessibility for theater goers too. The attendant helped seat disabled people in the right spots for access, but was also there to help people should they need it. 


I believe that an attendant should be standard at all theater events. It provides an important option in a space that has been historically reserved for the “upwardly mobile” (read: able-bodied) crowd, and that is sending the message that severely disabled people deserve access to the arts too. That’s a big message, and one that is rarely considered. 


Have A Lift In The Theater Space  


The Access Need: Power chair users may need help getting in and out of their chairs safely, both on and off stage.

How You Can Act: Ensure there is an accessible lift installed in your theater.

More Insight: For the two weeks of our show run, I’d come into the theater and I would see my big, metal lift that would get me in and out of my chair every night. The lift was part of our show, but it also ensured that if I needed to be transferred safely I could be. When we started rehearsing, the idea of the lift was for accessibility only, but the more and more we talked about the lift, we realized that it could be a part of the stories that we were telling. We ended up using the lift at the end of our show every night, and it made a huge impact on audiences understanding complex, severe disabilities. It truly transformed the theater every single night, and it provided us with an extra layer of comfort, safety and accessibility if we needed it. 


 Travel Accommodations To and From The Theater 


The Access Need: Traveling to and from the theater safely in accessible vehicles.

How You Can Act: Make space in your budget and establish relationships with transit options, such as nearby cab and paratransit companies, to offer options to patrons and performers in power chairs who need transport assistance.

More Insight: Over the course of our 6 week rehearsal, we relied on paratransit or cabs. One time, we finished our rehearsing a few hours early, and I tried booking an accessible cab.  I had to wait two hours for a cab to arrive. I missed care needs, food and toileting that I needed. So, if you are able, talk to local cab companies and para transit options so that performers and patrons alike can access the theater safely, and not lose hours of time. Budget this out and make it clearly part of accessibility needs, because it definitely gets overlooked.


There is so much more I can go into about Theater Access for Power Chair Users.  But, if you are putting on a theater production and have power chair users in roles or watching, I hope this is a start to help you, and thanks for chairing with me.  


To read more guest articles by Andrew Gurza, browse the Guest Articles tag.