How to Create an Accessible Festival or Event: Lessons Learned 

Leslie McIntosh, Avra Wing, Kathi Wolfe, and Seth Reeder sit on the Victoria Theater stage in NJPAC, against a blue backdrop and the Dodge Poetry Festival 2022 logo
From left to right, Leslie McIntosh, Avra Wing, Kathi Wolfe, and Seth Reeder sit on the Victoria Theater stage in NJPAC, against a blue backdrop and the Dodge Poetry Festival 2022 logo, for a session curated by Zoeglossia. Photo by Alex Towle Photography, 2022.

Dodge Poetry believes that everyone should be able to bring their most authentic selves to all of our events, which means providing resources so that everyone can enjoy and participate in our programming.  Our team embarked on a journey of learning about accessibility with curiosity and even a bit of trepidation, since we were learning while doing. Our deepest aha moments came by having conversations with individuals and organizations who are doing work in the areas of ADA compliance and working directly with communities that are differently abled.   

We also attended enlightening webinars that modeled best practices around language in disabilities communities, and how to hold events that are accessible both in-person and virtually. Some of the webinars we attended were hosted by LaVant Consulting, founded by a Black disabled woman, and which describes their organization as a “social impact strategy and communications firm dedicated to shaping the way the world reaches, views, and values people with disabilities.” They greatly helped us to better understand how to foster a more meaningful culture of belonging, particularly amongst individuals with disabilities.  

While our team continues to explore ways our programming can be more accessible, we thought we would share lessons learned so far so that your organization can think about how to make your Festival or event more accessible. 

 Broadcast Your Accommodations 

One of the biggest lessons learned as we spoke to folks from the disabilities communities is that, although we had provided CART captions for over 20 years, we never shared this information on our website or on social media, and we did not provide a dedicated phone and email for contacting us with accommodations requests or concerns.  

Broadcasting the accommodations you’ll be providing is extremely helpful so that 1) individuals from the community know how comfortable and accessible the event will be for them and 2) you are modeling to other organizations and communities the value of making an event accessible, and you are providing ideas around how they too can be more inclusive.   

Something we could have done better was asking folks from the disabilities community after our event: if you felt comfortable and welcome at our event, please tell your friends so that others learn more about our event’s level of accessibility. 

Budget Your Way to Accessibility 

We decided to make a budget line just for accessibility so that we can clearly budget and plan for it. We met with businesses that provide CART captioning; ASL interpretation; assisted listening devices; and organizations that provide continued consultation and guidance around accessibility, so that we could get estimates which provided parameters on how to budget.  Don’t forget to give yourself a cushion in case there are unexpected expenses.  We found that there were many budget items that we didn’t anticipate, particularly as we planned for an event that was both livestreamed and in-person. For example, we learned that for longer events, ASL signers typically need to work in teams and hand off signing to each other.  If you work with an experienced organization, you will not only be able to get a realistic estimate for this work, but the organization will also be able to provide a variety of signers that are diverse in race and gender. We hired SignNexus, founded by a woman of color who prioritizes hiring diverse signers. 

Within that same vein, we suggest you budget and plan for an ideal and truly accessible event. For example, we learned that CART captioning and signing is not the same accommodation, so we budgeted and planned to have both in as many performance spaces as we could.  In the end, if you need to cut accommodations due to a limited budget, ask questions of a consultant who is an expert in event accessibility in order to make decisions around what you may want to scale down. We also asked our attendees to inform us of the accommodations they needed leading up to our event—this gave us an idea of what accommodations we absolutely needed to provide. We learned that the more  accommodations we provided, the more different types of folks could attend; thus, a variety of community members who could truly get to experience and enjoy our event. 

Perform a Site Tour 

In order for things to go smoothly, we performed a site tour to be sure we understood how our footprint and venues were laid out physically for individuals with disabilities.  In fact, we assessed all our venues with two tremendous consultants, both with ties to our city-partner of Newark. Diane Feldman, who uses a wheelchair, and Krystle Allen, who identifies as someone who is blind, were incredibly attentive and had many notes for us as we went from venue to venue. They caught things that we might not have if we didn’t have them with us.  Here are some things we discovered and asked ourselves: 

  • Did our sidewalks have curb cutouts for individuals using wheelchairs or scooters? We started to think about attendees who would be moving from venue to venue.  How could we work with Newark (i.e. placing boards on sidewalks) so that sidewalks were more accessible? 
  • Our event had multiple venues, and there weren’t many sidewalk cutouts. Some of the venues were quite far from each other, so we considered a budget for a wheelchair accessible shuttle. We were very grateful to have Rutgers University-Newark donate two of their University shuttles to our event. Next time, we’d like to post the shuttle times in our program so that our audience knows when to expect the shuttle. 
  • We were grateful to be in clear communication with the Newark Police Department.  We had started to have conversations with them about the timing of our Festival footprint’s streetlights. Some of the counters were too short and just don’t give our audiences enough time to cross.  
  • We also had conversations with venues about the accessibility of their elevators. Some of our elevators could not be found easily and we needed a volunteer posted onsite to direct our attendees.  Other elevators needed someone on staff to use a key in order to activate the elevator. In most cases we realized it wasn’t enough to have an accessible elevator, we also needed someone present to point our attendees in the right direction. 

 Another aha moment for our team came at one of our Festivals several years ago. We had performed a site tour with our consultants and given much consideration to individuals with disabilities in our audience; however, we neglected to think about our very own performers who might be using a wheelchair in a venue that did not have a ramp to the stage.  In moments like these, we felt embarrassed at our oversight; but the moment encouraged us to lean in even more to make our events more accessible and think about the entirety of our community. 

Bathrooms, Bathrooms, Bathrooms… 

Our team had not given much thought to accessible bathrooms in the past, and this consideration greatly makes a difference; we want our attendees to feel comfortable and have access to basic needs. We have begun to ask ourselves questions of our venues, like do they have accessible bathrooms? Do our venues have family bathrooms? And do our venues have gender neutral bathrooms? 

Be Intentional with the Virtual 

Because our last Festival was both in-person and virtual, we learned to manage both and to consider the needs of both our audiences arriving in-person and our audiences at home. We learned that when recording a live event, we should have a camera focused on the ASL interpreter and another on the performer, if possible.  We learned to be sure our online audience can clearly see the ASL signer. If you’re having a portion of your event online, don’t forget you’ll need a dedicated CART captioner, too.  We had difficulty identifying a team large enough to handle our CART captioning requests because some of our events were simultaneous, and our days were long; we’ve been lucky to work with the CART captioning team at Garden State Captioning who always does a terrific job for us and goes above and beyond. 

Petra Kuppers reads at the 2022 Festival. Yellow captions across the bottom read “Beyond the portal a cathedral opens.” In the bottom right corner, an ASL interpreter from SignNexus provides signing for the audience.

Gather Materials in Advance 

Perhaps one of our biggest, yet most important lifts, was preparing our CART captioners and ASL interpreters.  We learned the importance of requesting materials from our performers in advance to send to our ASL and captioning teams so that these teams were not only prepared but could be intentional with accuracy by either plugging entire poems into captioning, or being familiar with the work so that they can know how to sign appropriately.  Performers did get nervous about the fact that their materials, like their poems, might change leading up to the performance, and that’s okay.  It’s important to remind the performers that the more materials the ASL and captioning team have in advance, the more accurately and justly they can serve communities with disabilities. One of the easiest ways to get documents to all the teams was by creating a Google folder so that when poems were sent to a dedicated email, we could easily upload them to one shared folder for all to access. We also prepared signers with the line-up in advance; experienced organizations will assign signers to performers, and there will be a smooth transition onstage when signers hand off to each other.   

Other Ways to Be More Inclusive 

  • We were reminded to save seating in the front of our performance venue so that audiences who’d like to can sit closer to the stage to see ASL interpreters and CART captioning.  On our High School Student Day, when we receive thousands of student attendees, we set aside even more seating for a group of students who were deaf who wanted to be able to see the ASL team. Being cognizant of who is in our audience really helped us make that decision.  We also reserved spaces at the front of our performance space for those who use wheelchairs or scooters. 
  • We talked with our printer about getting large-print programs for those with impaired visibility. 
  • We’ve noted that our website is in deep need of an audit in order to determine ways it can be most accessible for users, including considering screen readers which may not be able to read PDF files on our site, along with our website’s color contrast. 


Ultimately, we do this work so that all folks can bring their most authentic selves into our spaces. We hope this is informative and that it may stir questions or prompt ideas. We hope to continue to learn on our journey and discover ways we can continue to have individuals from disabilities communities feel seen and feel they belong. In fact, we’d love to hear what we might have missed or other ideas you might have for us!  Email us at to connect. 

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