The Pains of Physical Accessibility

August 22, 2007

Topics: Accessibility.

Thursday night last week, I attended a musical theater production. It was a production which was being provided with audio description, American Sign Language interpretation, and captioning. Obviously, the goals were to provide an all around accessible experience of this production.

And these things were all well done: the audio description was clear and simple. It neither interfered with the production nor gave any kind of bias to the actions of the characters. Although I don’t personally know ASL, the interpreters appeared to do an excellent job. (They were even costumed appropriately!) I was not actually seated in a place where I could view the captioning, unfortunately, so I can’t judge that. I guess you needed to plan ahead in order to view such things.

The worst part of the experience was the building itself. And that was…questionable.

The new Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN, opened in June of 2006. It’s an architectural artwork, and, like many art buildings, it seems like the experience of the building trumped accessibility and usability in several ways.

I found the building to be very difficult to find my way around. There were three major problems: lighting, signage and transit path layout.

First, the lighting. In a word — it was dim. The lighting was generally in shades of blue, and not anything describably light. When it came to stairs, there was actually white light present at a slightly greater luminosity, but the general visibility inside the building was poor. I have good vision, so this wasn’t a huge struggle for me — but anybody with low vision may have seriously struggled in the building.

Second, signage. The signs are a) small, b) poorly placed, and c) inappropriately labeled (in some cases.) The most obvious signs throughout the building are those which point to specific theaters. The new Guthrie building contains three separate performance halls, and it’s relatively easy to identify which one is which. This is great, if you know which theater your production is in. Believe it or not — I knew only which show I was coming to see, not which theater it was being produced in. The small signs which indicate which production is in a given theater were mounted on posts on the floor which elevated the signs to approximately waist height. Therefore, they were usually blocked from view by the bodies walking about in the lobby.

I could go on for quite a while with annoyances about the signage at the Guthrie — the problems finding stairways, how to get to the second level of the theater, navigating to the correct entrance for your seat, etc. But for now, let it just suffice to say that the signage leaves something to be desired.

Last, the transit paths. Specifically, the paths between levels of the building. They are frequently concealed from plain sight (behind walls and around corners). They are narrow given the quantity of traffic required of them. There were no signs (or at least, none that I saw) indicating where to go once you reach the end of them.

When I walked up to the main level entrance, the helpful ticket taker gave directions to get my mother and I to the balcony level entrances. We had to turn around, take the second right through the lobby, go up the stairs (which were concealed from view from the lobby), go through a second lobby area, and turn right again. The directions are, in themselves, fairly simple. If signs had been helpfully placed along the way, it would have been very easy. However, the lack of reinforcement through signage made the route much more difficult than necessary.

The Guthrie Theater is a very cool building. It is not, however, user-friendly. Larsen signage, the company which designed the Guthrie’s signage, uses the Guthrie as a case study on their web site. I believe that they thought a lot about the signage. I’m not convinced, however, that they gave sufficient thought to use paths. The signage is not plainly visible from enough perspectives, and the building is complex enough that this is significant.

I’m no expert on signage or building accessibility; but I do have to say that I found the experience of navigating at the Guthrie to be frustrating, and this greatly influences my opinions on the subject.

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2 Comments to “The Pains of Physical Accessibility”

  1. Well, it’s really not a surprise, given my mother’s career…she deals with these kinds of brick-and-mortar accessibility issues every day. That’s part of the environment I grew up in. 🙂

    Thanks, David!

  2. You made some very interesting observations, Joe. Your keen eye for web design accessibility has trascended into the “real” world of bricks and mortar. I guess that should not come as a suprise. It’s just another indicator of what accessibility means to you – on all levels.