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Broadway, awaiting crowds’ return, will get more wheelchair access

  • >> Azi Paybarah, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-07-14 11:06:36 BdST

Audience members take their seats before “Springsteen on Broadway” at the St James Theatre in New York, June 26, 2021. The New York Times

Two months before most of Broadway’s theatres reopen, the US attorney’s office in Manhattan announced Tuesday that a major operator had agreed to provide more wheelchair access at its five theatres as part of a settlement.

Audrey Strauss, US attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced a lawsuit against the Jujamcyn Theatres, alleging its theatres were in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, as well as a settlement with the company to fix the problem.

As part of the agreement, the Al Hirschfeld, August Wilson, Eugene O’Neill, St James and Walter Kerr theatres will provide 44 additional wheelchair-accessible seating locations and 54 aisle transfer seating locations, and will remove approximately 200 barriers to accessibility in theatre restrooms, concession counters, waiting areas and box offices.

Jujamcyn will also pay a $40,000 civil penalty, according to the announcement.

“As New York City begins to reopen and welcome the world once again, we are pleased that Jujamcyn Theatres, LLC, has worked collaboratively with the office to improve accessibility at its historic venues, so that all patrons are able to enjoy Broadway,” Strauss said in a statement.

An email message sent Tuesday evening to a spokesperson for Jujamcyn was not immediately returned.

The first upgrades are expected to be completed by the end of September, according to court documents.

The agreement with Jujamcyn is the latest that officials have struck with companies that operate Broadway theatres, many of which were opened decades before the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act was signed in 1990, requiring greater accessibility for those who are disabled.

For years, accessibility at Broadway theatres has been a challenge, with issues ranging from a limited supply of wheelchair-accessible seating inside the theatres to a lack of accommodations at box office counters. Broadway theatre operators have long pledged to make their facilities more ADA compliant.

In 2003, the head of the Shubert Organisation said that it had spent about $5 million upgrading 16 theatres to bring them into compliance with the ADA after a recommendation by the US attorney’s office. “What we did was a combination of compulsion and volunteerism,” Gerald Schoenfeld, chair of the organization, said at the time. “We were a willing complier.”

In 2014, the Nederlander Organisation entered into an agreement with the US attorney’s office to upgrade nine facilities after the prosecutor’s office filed suit. The company agreed to provide 70 additional wheelchair-accessible seating locations and 134 more aisle transfer seating locations, and to eliminate more than 500 barriers to accessibility at its theatres.

In general, for facilities built after the ADA began to take effect in the 1990s, barriers to accessibility are required to be removed “where it is readily achievable to do so,” according to the US attorney’s office.

The announcement about the settlement with Jujamcyn came as Broadway and other theatre districts around the world prepared to reopen after pandemic restrictions forced many of them to temporarily close their doors. Some shows responded by offering a streaming version of their in-person productions, enabling ticket holders to watch and listen from home, a boon for those who had found in-person productions inaccessible.

But as more people got vaccinated and the pandemic restrictions were eased, shows returned to their respective stages. (Last month, the first show returned to Broadway, as Bruce Springsteen dazzled more than 1,700 theatre goers with music and storytelling for two hours at the St James Theatre.)

And the return to more in-person performances at theatres has revived concerns over theatre accessibility and fears that the pandemic-era accessibility may be lost.

In New York City, theatre operators have said they are making strides at improving the in-person experience for those who need assistance.

In 2018, New York City announced it would offer grants to off-Broadway and other small theatres to install software that allows patrons to follow along with lowlight smartphones and tablets.

©2021 The New York Times Company