Engaging the Deaf/disability community: A Marketer’s Exploration
This post is part of our “Optimizing Your Arts Marketing Practice” blog salon.
I was recently asked to consult on a theatrical production, and the experience translates perfectly to a blog about marketing. First, I’d like to start with a little bit about me. I’m disabled (mobility/chronic illness), I’ve worked in the field of arts accessibility for more than 30 years, I’m hearing, I’m a sign language interpreter, I have no deafness in my family, I’ve been involved in the theater for more than four decades, and I run a nonprofit organization, Hands On, which produces sign language interpreted performances at many NYC theaters. I consider myself and my organization well respected in the Deaf community.
I have done quite a few workshops on marketing to the Deaf/disability communities, which I also will be offering at the upcoming National Arts Marketing Project Conference in November (hint, hint), but this recent experience was my first “official” entree into the field of marketing, working alongside marketing personnel and learning much about marketing lingo and strategies. It was a wonderful learning experience.
Here’s some background. I was asked by the Marketing Department at Playwrights Horizons (a very prestigious Off-Broadway theater in New York City) to consult on marketing their current production—Craig Lucas’ I Was Most Alive with You, which had many Deaf artists and technicians involved. We talked about a variety of issues, some marketing specific and some general, with the goal being to help the theater gain a better understanding of the Deaf community and Deaf audiences (and especially the Deaf community in NYC). My main job was to help Playwrights Horizons to connect with and get the word out about the production to the Deaf community.
For me, the idea of learning about marketing from marketers was an interesting and challenging task. I must applaud the theater’s desire to reach out to a community that was new to them. I was especially aware of their sensitivity to what they knew and what they didn’t know (that last part is an important distinction). All too often people can think they know how communities behave or assume that all approaches can be the same, but this theater was very open to questions, discussions, and recommendations.
Looking back now, I think this collaboration was an important step in how we work as a team to not only market to a new audience, but how we learn more about different cultures, mores, and norms of a community we might not know well but want to include. The ability to ask questions and have open and sometimes uncomfortable conversations to learn and understand new audiences was a part of this process, and so important—not only from the perspective of marketing a specific play, but in understanding a different community that we’re not a part of (Deaf/disabled people). My hope is that this opens up conversations and thinking about disability far beyond this one experience.
Cultural appropriation—who speaks for who, and who’s included in the conversation—is very much on my mind. I have no problem speaking for myself as a disabled woman; it’s my identity and I’m very clear that while I do not speak for the entire disability community, I speak for myself as a disabled person, and my thoughts and ideas are valid and true for me and me alone. We need advocates and allies. But we need to be a part of the conversation. This recent experience has shown me that we need to be able to have the connection to where we haven’t been before and where we have yet to enter. Working with a community rather than working for a community is an important distinction and something we all need to remember.
I have always considered much of what I do as “marketing,” although officially and technically my title is not as a marketer. I have always worked to figure out how to reach out to members of the Deaf/disability community, and to link what’s happening that’s accessible in more “mainstream” environments to a community that might not be aware of what’s going on. Designing accessible programs to any disability group—whether it’s the Deaf community, the blind/low vision community, people with mobility disabilities, autism, the list goes on—has always, in my mind, been an issue of marketing: there’s no point in investing time and money in a program to a specific audience, only to have no one show up. It’s the old adage: “If you build it, they will come”—but they won’t come if they don’t know it’s there or if you don’t know how to reach them.
What I’m seeing now, and this is a wonderful and a new challenge we’re all experiencing, is Deaf and disabled actors, technicians, directors, and staffs being asked into mainstream situations. With that being said, I’m hoping that theaters continue to reach out to us, to people in the communities, to see how we can work together so we can move away from what up to now has been a “special needs” mindset into a more “regular” happening.
My recent foray into professional arts marketing shows me that there’s much we can learn from each other on ways to link historically overlooked and disenfranchised communities with the mainstream theater communities who want to invite them in. Communities of different disabilities have their own networks, their own cultural mores; and who’s invited in, who’s allowed in, and how far in we can go is a learning process we all should be looking at.