How to design a show for everyone: Universal accessibility through MYÜZ

A dream-like room with purple and pink walls with tactile items.
MYÜZ offers a neuro-inclusive environment featuring tactile items and visual stimulations designed to accommodate the diverse sensory needs of all visitors.
A smiling woman and her child sit in a theatre. The child holds up a program for the Broadway musical Frozen.
Sarah MacKinnon and her daughter Téa enjoy a recent performance at the NAC. © Sarah MacKinnon

Going to a live performance is one of life’s most enjoyable experiences. For most able-bodied individuals, the sensory elements of a stage show – the lights and the sounds – are part of what makes going out interesting and exciting. But for audience members with disabilities, such as persons who are blind, hearing impaired or are on the autism spectrum, a live performance may be more challenging. Venues with limited wheelchair access can also be an issue.

Immersive and inclusive    

The National Arts Centre has created, as part of its commitment to accessibility and diversity, an innovative and inclusive initiative entitled MYÜZ.

MYÜZ is a unique experience that dares visitors to go deep into the mind of an artist and influence the creative process. The work reimagines traditional immersive experiences, blending elements from escape rooms, immersive art exhibits and therapeutic sensory rooms. Visitors of all abilities enter four rooms interconnected by a tunnel. Each space features tactile items and visual stimulations designed to accommodate the diverse sensory needs of all visitors.

The catalyst for the project is Sarah MacKinnon, the NAC’s Chief Information Officer. Sarah is the mother of three children with disabilities: Téa, 17, has cerebral palsy, while her sons Rowan, 14, and Graeme, 11, are on the autism spectrum.

Sarah approached Heather Gibson, Executive Producer of Popular Music and Variety with the idea to create an installation that provided an experience for the disability community that was the same or was better than what is typically offered to able-bodied persons.

“When our family goes on vacation,” Sarah explains, “it’s always hard to find attractions that are appropriate and enjoyable for everyone. Venues are rarely universally accessible, or they’ve been adapted after-the-fact, for example through the addition of a wheelchair ramp. When it’s a retrofit, it always shows.”

A beautiful experience

Heather Gibson assembled a creative team, including Echo Zhou, Martin Conboy and Katharine Fountain who acted as set, lighting and sound designers, respectively. Visual artists Brad Hindson and Max Striecher, as well as the Canada Council Art Bank, also contributed. Consultants from the disability community were involved from the beginning in the conception of MYÜZ. They include Dominique Chabot of Autism Canada, Liz Winkelaar and Geoffrey Dollar of Propeller Dance, Pina D’Intino and David Wysocki of Aequum Global Access Inc, as well as Anna-Karina Tabuñar of Talent Untapped Group.

“It's important that we push boundaries to not only find ways for all audiences to attend but also participate fully at the NAC,” says Heather Gibson. “Projects like MYÜZ bring us closer to understanding what is needed for true accessibility both on and off the stage.”

The project raised awareness among the NAC creative team as to what constitutes good inclusive design. During the MYÜZ’s workshop phase this spring, members carried a copy of the accessibility guidelines binder in hand as they measured doorways and the heights of objects to make sure everyone was accommodated.

“What we do in creating elements for the stage could have an effect on neurodiverse actors and audience members,” says Mike D’Amato, Executive Director of NAC Production and father of Sophia, 15, who is also on the autism spectrum. “For an actor who is neurodiverse, the texture of a surface could be overstimulating. Same for someone in the audience who may be overstimulated by strobe lights or loud sounds. It’s important to be aware of these things as we create a show that is interesting and safe for everyone.”

“This project has been a beautiful experience and a great opportunity to learn and grow,” says Sarah MacKinnon. “I can see how the knowledge we have gained will permeate into other areas at the NAC.”

Advocates in the Disability Community are also taking notice.

MYÜZ offers a truly neuro-inclusive environment,” says Dominique Chabot, Family Support Manager for Autism Canada and a parent to two children on the autism spectrum. “This work doesn’t just meet the standards set forth by the Accessibility Act, it’s actually a pioneering leap towards true inclusivity, redefining how cultural institutions engage with diverse audiences. Through initiatives like MYÜZ, the NAC continues to lead the way in promoting neurodiversity and breaking down barriers, contributing to a more inclusive and vibrant artistic landscape in Canada.”

As the time of writing, MYÜZ is still in development with the hope to bring it to the stage in the near future.

Learn more: Visit the NAC’s Accessibility Web page and  2022-2025 Accessibility Plan.

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