Bette Knapp and the Pursuit of Inclusion
Rebecca Klein August 14, 2019
In this photo from March 31, 1989, Bette Knapp, a woman with short hair, is smiling at the camera as she sits in her wheelchair next to Dr. Karen Buxton, Director of the Computer Center for the Visually Impaired at Baruch College. Dr. Buxton is holding a Braille program and appears to be reading aloud from the page. The Score / Music Dance Film Opera Theater
Bette Knapp and the Pursuit of Inclusion
On July 1, 1985, five years before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, Bette Knapp joined Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc. (Lincoln Center). She was hired as the first coordinator for the Department of Programs and Services for Disabled People (PSDP). Originally part of Lincoln Center's Community Relations Department and funded by a federal grant through the National Endowment for the Arts, PSDP grew during the following year into a full-time operation, eventually becoming an independent department in June of 1988. At the time, Lincoln Center was the only major performing arts institution in the country to have a full-time office devoted to accessibility.
Though the PSDP was created in 1985, organizational leadership had considered accessibility since the beginning. When Lincoln Center first opened, planning designs included wheelchair seating and accessible restrooms. On March 27, 1961, during the second phase of Lincoln Center Student Programs, a precusor to Lincoln Center Education, the Metropolitan Opera Guild offered concerts of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte for public schools in the tri-state area. One school, William H. Carr JHS, included four students who were blind. Understanding the importance of sensory equity, Lincoln Center staff invited the students backstage to learn about the costumes. The students were able to feel the ruched ribbon on Fiordiligi's creamy red corset, run their fingers over the wire edging on Dorabella's topsy-turvy hat, and stroke the elaborately antiquated wigs.
Two years later, on June 18, 1963, more than fifty patrons with disabilities attended the Seat Endowment Committee of Lincoln Center, a fundraising campaign for naming seats, for a "Promenade" concert rehearsal, an event meant to focus attention on Lincoln Center's campaign for wheelchair seating locations. "I have a special reason for being grateful," attendee Ruth Anderson said of Philharmonic Hall's (now David Geffen Hall's) facilities. "I have attended several performances in my wheelchair. When the regular seat was pushed away to make room for my chair, I felt a new era had arrived[…]. I had not the faith to believe such a miracle could ever come to pass."
To view wheelchair seating as a miracle today would be naive—accessible seating locations at performing arts institutions are now a civil right protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, Ruth Anderson's quote represents a pivotal moment in Lincoln Center's history, a time that foreshadowed organizational differentiation between accessibility and inclusion and a burgeoning recognition of the need for a department dedicated to serving patrons with disabilities. But Ruth Anderson's words also represent a darker side of that history—a side that speaks to the exclusion of people with disabilities from daily life, the perilous ways the medical-industrial complex frames disability, and the constant need for and importance of intersectional disability advocacy.
Timelines can lead readers to believe many things, but I want to dig deeper. Disability and accessibility are far more nuanced than medical diagnoses and the established laws that protect certain disabled people from certain ableist injustices. I do not have many answers, but I do have questions. As Lincoln Center's Accessibility Partnerships and Programs Fellow this past year, I considered several questions often: Where does Lincoln Center stand in developing and deliberately creating a more equitable world? How can we address—through equity in the performing arts—the troubled relationship of cure to disability, mental health, chronic pain, and illness? What is the role of cultural institutions in going beyond access to inclusion, and what does this mean for people with disabilities whom we might not yet serve?
These are difficult questions with nebulous and shifting answers. If you have never considered them, sit with these questions and the experiences that create them. Turn them over, discuss them, relate to them how you will, and allow them to change shape over time. After all, as queer, white, and disabled activist Eli Clare eloquently discusses in his book Brilliant Imperfection, rarely does body-mind variation remain in a static state. Clare uses the term body-mind "in order to recognize the inextricable relationships between our bodies and our minds and the ways in which the ideology of cure [and society] operates as if the two are distinct—the mind superior to the body, the mind defining personhood" (Clare).
You may be thinking: What do cure and body-mind variation have to do with cultural institutions? I believe there are many connections to make. Disability can be liminal and temporal, often invisible, and intertwined with other marginalized identities and body-mind experiences. Nevertheless, disability can also be visible at every moment of every day, perhaps through a body-mind that does not look, move, or communicate according to the expectations of society. Disability can also affect us in different ways throughout our lives, moving in tandem with our shifting abilities to live with and persevere through certain body-mind conditions.
At Lincoln Center, I have discovered numerous ways that cultural institutions in New York City address body-mind variations. I have supervised and coached teenagers with developmental disabilities for Lincoln Center's Access Ambassador program, a job-training initiative started in 2016 for young people with disabilities that seeks to close an enraging and discriminatory employment gap; I have gotten to know and interact with families who attend Lincoln Center events through Passport to the Arts, a ticket-distribution program started in 1989 by Bette Knapp for children with disabilities and their families; and I have observed through Lincoln Center Moments, a concert and workshop series started in 2016 for individuals with dementia and their care partners, the complicated nature of a cultural institution's ability to support patrons as they age, change, and experience disability in new ways.
Concurrently, I was also exposed to access and arts initiatives embedded within Lincoln Center's constituent organizations and scattered throughout New York City. For example, through Passport to the Arts, the Lincoln Center Accessibility team partners and works with different departments and multiple organizations such as CO/LAB Theater Group, Lincoln Center Education (a department of Lincoln Center), Jazz at Lincoln Center, The New York Philharmonic, and The New York City Ballet. Another program run through Lincoln Center's Accessibility Department, Lincoln Center Moments, is bolstered through partnerships and workshops with CaringKind's Connect2culture and Arts & Minds. Additionally, the Access Ambassador program, which, this year, consisted of four partner schools and the District 75 transition hub, connects young people with disabilities to Lincoln Center's constituents, programs, and staff members.
Throughout my fellowship, I found that many of Lincoln Center's programs incorporate other marginalized identities and communities as well. Programs like Lincoln Center Education's Family-Linc feature elements similar to Passport to the Arts: relaxed environments, day-time performances, sensory-friendly programming and accommodations, educational opportunities, and the elimination of cost as a barrier to entry. I realized, time and again, that as important as disability-specific programming is, it is imperative to make performances accessible to people who come from a variety of marginalized backgrounds.
By programming with these communities in mind, we move past access to inclusion and place value on the lives and experiences of all New Yorkers. In contrast, when cultural institutions choose not to provide access, they are, in effect, saying that cure—of disability, skin color, education level, socioeconomic status, or geographic location—is the only way one can participate in programs. In other words, when cultural institutions choose not to provide physical and program access, they are saying that concert-goers must either change to fit their mold—an often-impossible endeavor—or else leave. While this exclusion is often perpetuated unintentionally, it is nonetheless an eradication of a group of people from public spaces.
When I consider the concept of cure and its shifting attempt to exclude and eradicate people with disabilities from daily life—which includes the performing arts as per Lincoln Center's first president, John D. Rockefeller, who stated that the arts belonged "not on the periphery of daily life, but at its center"—I am drawn back to a work by the poet Marc Rahe entitled "Summer":
Always I notice the entrances to homes
where a wheelchair couldn't go.
They are the shoulders of these houses
raised in apology.
As if they couldn't help
but to offend. As if to say:
it is how we were made.
Though Rahe's poem concerns physical accessibility for wheelchair users, which has long been the overarching goal of accessibility initiatives, his point is transferable:
It is how we were made, says the inequitable job-search process.
It is how we were made, says the professor who will not allow assistive technology in his classroom.
It is how we were made, says the performing arts organization that excludes people who cannot sit still and in silence.
Now, let me be clear: I am not pointing fingers. Rather, I am stating experiences. When presented with an inaccessible building, wheelchair-users are, without needing to be explicitly told, asked to leave. In a similar vein, when asked to learn the same way as their neurotypical peers, students with disabilities are subsequently, and often explicitly, asked to leave. These inequities are some of the experiences that Lincoln Center now works to address; however, changing focal points took time.
When Bette Knapp joined Lincoln Center, the organizational focus was on making Lincoln Center physically accessible. Knapp, always a progressive, also discussed programmatic and employment initiatives, but these ideas were shelved for a later time. While sifting through Lincoln Center's accessibility archives, I discovered a note that Bette Knapp had written in the summer of 1985, when her tenure had just begun. The note outlined access initiatives in two parts: physical access and program access. Physical access concerned the lack of curb cuts—which were nonexistent—around the perimeter of Lincoln Center at that time; the lack of a ramp at the concourse end on the sidewalk along the Vivian Beaumont Theater, which forced wheelchair-users to enter through the garage with traffic; a particularly heavy door in the front entrance of the then-named Avery Fisher Hall (now David Geffen Hall); and a lack of accessible restrooms. Program access addressed the lack of facilities and services for blind persons at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; limited seating options for wheelchair-users in various concert halls (wheelchair seats were only located in the orchestra section where prices were highest); a lack of accessibility information included in advertisements; and the exclusion of children and adults with disabilities from educational programs.
The architectural focus as paramount made sense: if you take a moment to consider every accommodation now present at Lincoln Center—for example ramps, automated doors, elevators, and removable seats—you will realize the extent to which Lincoln Center was physically designed for one type of body-mind. Before Bette Knapp could make programmatic or employment changes, patrons, employees, and artists with disabilities needed to be able to not only enter the buildings, but also to use the restrooms and dressing rooms, navigate the surrounding areas, drink from the water fountains, purchase tickets from the box office, and sit and perform in the concert halls. Nevertheless, Knapp knew that physical accessibility is not synonymous with inclusion. "Accessibility to the performing arts," she stated in a grant proposal to Mammoth Communications on August 5, 1991, "has come to mean more than just physical access to the concert halls at Lincoln Center. Services for disabled patrons are an integral part of Lincoln Center's responsibility to make the joys of live performance available to all." Though ensuring physical access is often a necessary first step in designing universal spaces and experiences, creating inclusion at a large performing arts organization does not follow a linear or tangible path. Before Knapp could attempt inclusivity, she had to address the lack.
"Accessibility to the performing arts...has come to mean more than just physical access to the concert halls at Lincoln Center."
For many years, conversations around accessibility have been about lack—lack of programs, lack of curb cuts, lack of accessible restrooms, and lack of opportunities. When we discuss lack of accessibility, we inadvertently discuss the lack of societal participation that stems from one's disability, which is a dangerous erasure of body-mind variance. Indeed, for a long time, lack of accessibility was focused on the medical model—that disability was the cause of an individual’s ability to participate in daily life. The medical model places blame on the individual, thus ignoring them and giving society little incentive to change. We have now come to utilize and advocate for the social model of disability, which instead attributes lack of access to systemic barriers in society. Through the social model, we lift blame from individuals and focus attention instead on creating universally designed spaces and programs.
I find fascinating the ways this sense of lack or loss is directly addressed in certain communities through shifts in language and symbols. The medical-industrial complex, for instance, frames losing one's hearing as Hearing-Loss; however, Deaf advocates sometimes refer to the experience as Deaf-Gain, a linguistic flip that incorporates meaning and cultural relevance into body-mind variance. I think often about these linguistic nuances and the ways they have developed inside Lincoln Center. From a language standpoint, Lincoln Center staff has made a conscious decision to use person-first language, meaning staff uses the term person with a disability rather than a disabled person. This shift in language also brought about a change in department title—Programs and Services for Disabled People became Accessibility at Lincoln Center. Though there is much disagreement within the disability community regarding terminology, I find important the decision of a large cultural institution to adopt a singular term it deems most respectful.
While exploring Bette Knapp’s notes, I was also struck by the continuity in her departmental meeting agendas. Though short-term goals were ever-changing, combatting the interminable lack through exciting partnerships such as Braille printing at the Andrew Heiskell Library and the growing Passport to the Arts program (then-called Passport to the World of the Performing Arts), two long-term goals remained constant: a hiring program for employees with disabilities and greater representation of disabled artistry on Lincoln Center's stages. These two goals appeared meeting after meeting, year after year. These two goals were woven into Bette Knapp's purpose and mission. In 1989, she organized and moderated a workshop called "Employment in the Performing Arts: Challenges and Opportunities" for the annual President's Committee on Employing People with Disabilities meeting; and in 1992, she hoped to execute a "Celebration of Abilities" concert, an event by and for artists and patrons with disabilities. She viewed her department as a role model for cultural institutions across the country, and she envisioned disabled employment and disabled artistry as necessary steps towards inclusion.
These two goals are, unfortunately, still in pursuit today; however, much else has grown. Within four months of Bette Knapp's joining Lincoln Center, documented changes were underway. She had, among many projects, gotten the city to install curb cuts around the perimeter of Lincoln Center, inspected buildings and restrooms for future renovations, met with department heads and members across the organization to discuss accessibility, and formed an Advisory Committee composed of patrons and performers with disabilities—of note was Yitzhak Perlman. Bette Knapp differentiated between accessibility and inclusion, and she made clear that John D. Rockefeller's profound 1963 statement and Lincoln Center's founding principle, "The arts are not for the privileged few, but for the many," included people with disabilities.
Bette Knapp's initiatives, like the initiatives of today, were created and upheld through partnerships and community outreach—tenets of Lincoln Center's mission. However, just as accessibility and inclusion cannot be accomplished without integrated and internalized organizational support, these initiatives cannot function on their own; to be fully inclusive, they require accessible practices and universal design at every point of contact. Today, the Accessibility Department, while helping Lincoln Center maintain general ADA compliance, servicing an accessibility hotline, and ensuring staff members' knowledge of best-practices, runs multiple programs encompassing a wide range of ages and disabilities. Without institutional support and awareness, the initiatives of yesterday, today, and tomorrow would not be possible.
On November 18, 1985, in a summary report to Lincoln Center's President, Nathan Leventhal, Bette Knapp stated, "I have been particularly impressed with the responsiveness of the people with whom I have met, their genuine interest and concern, and even the eagerness of some to learn what they could do to encourage disabled people to attend events and to make their experience at Lincoln Center more enjoyable." Bette Knapp knew, just as we know, that all body-minds have a place at Lincoln Center. She knew that all body-minds deserve to feel at home at Lincoln Center. Though there is much work to be done to accomplish inclusion, the history is rich. We must keep learning, inquiring, and designing ways to make life more accessible, more inclusive, and more equitable. The future is in perpetual motion.
Learn more about Accessibility at Lincoln Center or contact the Accessibility team at 212.875.5375 or [email protected]
Rebecca Klein is a freelance writer and is also the 2018–19 Accessibility Partnerships and Programs Fellow at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.