Wednesday, December 30, 2009

National Ballet Responds - With Understanding and Change

Within two hours of sending in my letter of complaint I received a phone call from the National Ballet. The woman I spoke to (the call caught me by surprise so I didn't get her name) had to be the best possible person to respond to a letter like mine. She was calm, sincere and dedicated to making change. She apologized unreservedly for what happened to me.

As we talked I realized I had made an error in reading the floor plan. An non-attached seat, as pointed out by one of the commenters yesterday is not necessarily a disabled seat. When I looked at the floor plan, saw the non attached seats were all in places where disabled seating is likely to be (on the side or at the back) I made an assumption. The woman was kind enough to see that the problem was lack of clarity on the website and unlike my commenter, saw how I made the assumption that I did.

She understood that the issue was separation from my family and our lost opportunity with Ruby. She took that concern as seriously as I thought it needed to be taken. She promised several things. She said that they would make changes to the website to make things crystal clear from location of stairs to a definition of non attached seats. She said that she could do little now but the changes would be made in the New Year. She promised her IT team would go through my letter and make sure that the website could no longer be misunderstood.

She offered other compensation, tickets for the whole family to go to another ballet next year. She understood when I said that I wasn't ready for that conversation and that I wanted to hear from her more formally in writing. She said that she would do everything she could to make up for what had happened. In no way did she diminish my concern, in no way did she blame me for making an understandable mistake, in no way did she communicate that my concerns were outrageous or unreasonable.

I went back onto their website to check something and found that there was already a change. People wanting accessible seats were asked to phone and make the booking. Clearly she wanted to assure that this not happen again in the last few days of the run.

The most important apology is change.

I am impressed.

I thank the National Ballet for a quick response.

I had little hope that there would be someone there who cared. As it turned out, the person there did. I misjudged. For that I apologize.

Here's to people with disabilities being heard. Here's to change making things better. Here's to two voices talking, listening, understanding and coming to resolution.

Horrible situation led to my renewed conviction that change is possible.

To the woman who called - you deserve a raise.


rickismom said...

Oh, Isn't it wonderful when we see that someone REALLY "gets it"?

Gina said...


Although I read you every day I don't believe I have ever commented before.

I read with excitement about your plans to take Ruby to The Nutcracker (personally I like to anticipate such an event but I don't want to hear the music or video in advance, but I digress).

Then I read with pain about your loss of being able to see Ruby enjoy her first ever ballet. Some of my biggest joys in watching my Goddaughter grow up have involved taking her to plays and musicals and watching her little face as the magic of the theater unfolded before her. I just took her to two Broadway musicals for her high school graduation and got to see the wonder all over again. I so understand and grieve for your loss and disappointment.

Just so you know, your experience will change more than just the National Ballet's method of seating and selling tickets. I am very involved in my small town's small community theater. Even though I work with people with disabilities I admit (shamefully) that I hadn't given much thought to our theater's accessible seating and ticket orders (either on-line or by phone). I believe I'll have a chat with our board and make sure no one in our theater has a comparable experience. Do you mind if I share your story with them?

Dave Hingsburger said...

Gina, please do! That would make me so happy. It's part of the point of this blog - to effect change.

Andrea S. said...


Hurrah! It is such a relief to know that there was someone at that theater who "gets it" ... and is changing communication and policies accordingly!

Gina, it's great that you're thinking about how to influence policies/communication elsewhere. I encourage you to also talk with them about accessibility issues for deaf people. For example, when I have tried to attend plays/performances as a deaf person, I am generally restricted to the very few performances each season (if there are any at all) that have a sign language interpreter available. This can be frustrating enough when the very few dates available are not compatible with the dates on which *I* am available (because, after all, I have a life just like everyone else!) But as if that weren't enough, it can often be very difficult to locate accurate information on when interpreters will be available and which seats in the theater are *the* seats from which the interpreter is visible.

Sometimes when I call to ask, the people answering the phone (selling the tickets) have no idea what I'm talking about when I ask when interpreters are available. One time, I was told to dial a long distance number (which would have incurred long distance charges to my phone bill!) to find out the information. I argued with them, asking why it should be my responsibility to pay to get this essential information. They did end up calling on my behalf in the end, but shouldn't have asked me to make that long distance call in the first place.

For one performance, I made several failed attempts over the course of several weeks to find out when a particular musical had interpreters available. (Yes, some deaf people *DO* have enough residual hearing to enjoy listening to musicals, as long as we have either interpreters or captioning to give us some access to the lyrics.) The web (at least initially) had no info, and the people handling the calls were clueless as usual. Then finally, when the season was already half over, I came across someone (via phone) who had the appropriate information and gave me a date, so I started negotiating which seats I would take. It turned out there were only two sets of seats from where the interpreter would be visible--both were among the most expensive seats in the house. There were cheaper seats in the house, but the interpreter was not visible there. I had been hoping to save money by taking cheaper seats, but this option was not available to me. I asked if there wasn't a disability discount in view of the fact that the theater was essentially forcing deaf people into the most expensive seats in order to have the opportunity to see the performance at all. He said there were, but there were only a limited number of discount tickets that were all sold out at the start of the season -- during a time when I had found it impossible to find any information on which performances were interpreted! I pointed out that they were essentially discriminating against deaf people by forcing us to pay for the most expensive tickets in the house in order to see the performance at all -- regardless of when we bought the tickets. He tried to argue that it wasn't discriminatory because I still had the right to choose any other seat in the house so they weren't forcing me to take those seats. (But if those seats are the only ones from which the interpreter can be seen, then that DOES essentially remove my opportunity to seat anywhere else and still derive some enjoyment from the performance! But he refused to buy that argument.)

I did end up buying that ticket and going to the performance. But I felt very very ripped off and angry. And my partner ended up not coming with me because of how expensive the tickets were -- if there could have been a discount, or if we had had the option of sitting in cheaper seats, then I could have had companionship with me. Instead I ended up going alone, which made the experience less enjoyable.

Andrea S. said...

Sorry to gab on so much, but I have more for Gina. (You can tell this issue touches a nerve for me!):

If your community theater offers interpreters, I hope you will take a look at how the relevant information is communicated to the public. And make sure that all front line staff who might interact with the public is aware of exactly which performances have interpreters, which seats are available, etc. Make sure that the interpreter is as close as possible to the stage (every time the deaf person has to look from the interpreter to the action on the stage, or from the stage to the interpreter, information is lost. In fact they're losing information anyway because they can only receive one channel of information at a time --either watch the action and lose the dialogue or watch the dialogue via the interpreter and miss the action. But if you have to turn your head a long way between interpreter and action, then you lose ALL information for the split second it takes to do that, and that means you lose a certain amount of context that makes it harder to understand what happens next in the action or dialogue.) And of course, the deaf people should have seats reasonably close to where the interpreter is (for example, if the interpreter is standing at the far right side of the stage, then deaf people should have seats available in the front few rows in the far right side of the theater). If they are too far away then they won't be able to read the interpreters' signs. If they have to crane their neck a lot to see the interpreter then that would be a literal pain in the neck! Also consider lighting issues -- when it becomes dark in the theater, there needs to be a light on the interpreter. (Sign language cannot be seen in the dark!) This means coordination with the lighting crew, once it has been determined where the interpreter will be located.

If you have a specific schedule of which performances will be interpreted (most theaters do), consider making an offer to reserve interpreters for any other desired date if one of the pre-scheduled dates does not suit the needs of the deaf person. Of course the deaf person should be asked to request the interpreter a set period of time in advance (for example, if your theater needs three weeks notice to ensure that it is able to obtain a team of interpreters familiar with the performance, then you would require deaf people to give you at least that much notice). If you offer this service, make sure it is easy for the deaf person to find out this option is available!

The interpreting team should be selected ideally while the play or musical is still in rehearsals so the interpreters (for performances 60 or 90 minutes or up, you will generally need two interpreters alternating with each other) can have the opportunity to attend a few rehearsals, review the script, etc., so they can decide in advance the best translation possible for each line. Interpreting teams also sometimes like to agree with each other to assign each interpreter to a certain set of characters to make it easier for deaf audience members to understand who is speaking which line and give them a clearer sense of watching actual dialogue rather than an on-going monologue! (which is what it can feel like if one interpreter translates all lines for all characters) This, too, needs to be determined in advance. Hence, interpreters like to do a little rehearsal too. Probably not as much as regular cast members, but at least some. There are interpreters who specialize in performance interpretation who can explain in more detail both their needs and the needs of deaf audience members.

Yes, Gina, you are free to share my comments with them also. Ditto for my other comments for yesterday's post. (Though I apologize that I ramble on in such disorganized fashion.)

Anonymous said...


Like Gina, I was happy to hear about your plans and deeply saddened when they fell through as they did. So happy to hear that someone listened to your very reasonable complaint and is willing to make changes based on those complaints. Nice work!

Don in Missouri

FridaWrites said...

Yes, she does! I have made phone calls to no avail before, so it is awesome when someone does make a change (rare, but it happens).

I'm sure you're not the only one who would make the same assumption about the seating, so wonderful for everyone that they're clarifying this.

While I understand your hurt right now having been in the same situation many times (couldn't go to my daughter's Girl Scout ceremony at which she'd achieved award after award), I think Ruby would love it if you go to the ballet with her again next time. It can't undo this time, but I think she'd like to go again.

Way to go, Gina, being proactive! That's unheard of.

Mary-Anne said...

I think this is just bullshit. You need to demand some money in compensation. They need to be punished. Don't wimp out!

Andrea S. said...


I do think there is a time and place for demanding monetary compensation at minimum for the direct financial costs that you have lost/wasted and (in some cases) also for the more indirect losses, for example the lost opportunity to do other things with your time because you might have needed to cancel or sacrifice other activities in order to come out to the theater.

However, when it comes to accessibility issues, I know if it were me, if all I got was money and saw no REAL changes in policy that would prevent similar problems happening to me or other people in the future, I would remain very depressed. It would reinforce the sense of helplessness I already experience every time I encounter yet ANOTHER barrier when yet ANOTHER product or service is denied to me--or is made more difficult for me to receive, or more expensive--because I am deaf. Given a choice, I will ALWAYS prefer a REAL apology and also REAL, sustainable change in policy that will benefit ALL deaf people using their services in the future. Money means very little to nothing without that.

For me, one of the worst things about experiencing discrimination is not simply being denied services or access to the same products as everyone else. It's the feeling of helplessness and disempowerment that comes with being hit in the face yet again with the stark fact that my life, and my rights, are simply not valued in the same way that the lives and rights of others are valued. Money cannot make up for that. The only thing that can help take away that sense of helplessness and return a little sense of empowerment to me is honest acknowledgment of the problem and sincere, rapid steps to correct it for the future.

What monetary price would you put on missing out on the entranced look of a very young child who you love very much experiencing something truly magical for the very first time in her life? If it were me, trying to put a price tag on that would kind of cheapen it. They did the next best thing, which is the opportunity to recapture a somewhat similar experience later on via some other performance. That, to me, would be more meaningful.

Of course I'm not Dave. But I gather the sense that his sentiments are similar.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Mary Anne, I did not want financial compensation because, as Andrea said, how do you price the loss? Besides if my first pressure was money and my satisfaction was personal gain then my advocacy becomes suspect. I wanted change so that others won't experience what I did. As a Canadian, I am suspicious of 'lawsuit' culture. When this first happened, I outlined in my head what I wanted, I wanted apology and I wanted change. Both happened. I'm happy with that.

Belinda said...

I understand being happy with an apology and change. That's what we wanted after a horrifying experience in a hospital earlier this year. Like you, we got both, and felt good because of that.

I'm so happy it has worked out like this so quickly. Ruby will learn the story of her first Nutcracker and I'm sure that it will mean even more to her in years to come when she learns that because of her, life was made better for others.

Andrea S. said...

Belinda's comment here gave me a brainstorm: "Ruby will learn the story of her first Nutcracker and I'm sure that it will mean even more to her in years to come when she learns that because of her, life was made better for others."

... Dave, here is my brainstorm: start an electronic scrapbook for Ruby. Copy/paste all the blog posts in which you have written about her or mentioned her into a Word file (or whatever other format works for you -- perhaps print them out if that is easier). Including pictures. Then when she is older, you can print them out and bind them in some fashion and give it to her as a gift.

Start a file for Sadie also.

I bet it would make them feel good to see the love and affection for them that pours out through all your blog posts about them. And it might also interest them to learn more about their early years (that they might not remember as clearly years from now) through the eyes of others. Also, lets them learn more about how others treat people with disabilities and how lucky they are to be growing up with a different perspective.