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Backstage tour of Boston Ballet's Nutcracker. Image: Liza Voll Photography


Mass Cultural Council’s Universal Participation (UP) Initiative was established to advance access at cultural facilities throughout the Commonwealth. Access is defined broadly to highlight physical, fiscal, cultural, and social barriers. The UP Initiative takes as a basic tenet that increasing accessibility for people with disabilities increases accessibility for everyone. Access by design is woven into the institutional culture and recognized as a method for building community connections.

To acknowledge the access work being done by cultural institutions across Massachusetts, the Universal Participation Initiative is creating a community of practice that highlights excellence in the field, provides grants for innovative solutions, and offers stipends for professional development.

To break down barriers to participation, the UP Initiative supports several programs to assist organizations wanting to instigate civic engagement.

  • UP Designation is for organizations demonstrating inclusive practices. An institution with UP Designation engages with a growing network of involved peer professionals. UP Designation is tied to a core principle of inclusion within Mass Cultural Council and is an esteemed position. New opportunities to learn and to lead are made available. Additional grants and stipends are made available. Distinct promotion from Mass Cultural Council is provided.
  • Innovation and Learning Network (ILN) is an educational opportunity provided by Mass Cultural Council. Participation in the ILN includes a stipend for staff time and travel; a series of learning workshops in design principles, legislative compliance, policy development, and engagement strategies; a user/expert consultation; and a website audit by the National Center for Accessible Media. Upon completion of the ILN, organizations receive UP Designation.
  • Card to Culture is a partnership between Mass Cultural Council and the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance. The program provides free or discounted admission to the cultural treasures of the Commonwealth. UP Designated organizations are expected to take part in at least one of the Card to Culture programs.
  • Our Innovation Fund provides grants for UP Designated  organizations taking bold steps towards equity and inclusion.
  • The biennial UP Award is both a badge of distinction and a monetary prize for UP Designated organizations as vetted by peers and a panel of experts.

The goal of the UP Initiative is to support the growth and development of accessibility practices.  Leaders at organizations that embrace inclusion as central to their mission know that “by design” we can anticipate and accommodate patrons, staff, volunteers, and students. The intent is to enhance the cultural experiences for everyone, build capacity, fuel insight, and inspire action. Using the directives of Universal Design as guiding principles, the UP Initiative looks to four distinct characteristics that build the foundation for “access” work.

  • Equity: A vision of inclusion is baked into the systems of governance. A shared sense of purpose informs the entire organization and shapes priorities, policies, and practices. Inclusion is woven into everything the organization does – marketing, planning, budgeting, fund raising, programing, and branding.
  • Education: Provisions are available for staff training about inclusive culture. The best inclusive design solutions will never succeed without the commitment and engagement of board, staff, volunteers, designers, and others taking part in the work of the organization. In addition, this skill set is shared across the discipline and the field, empowering our cultural sector and strengthening our plurality.
  • Representation: The institution centers marginalized voices to inform strategies. People with disabilities, temporary functional limitations, sensory sensitivities, or neural-differences, have developed natural expertise in dealing with the barriers in our physical, cultural, and social environments. These “user/experts” offer critically important perspectives and insights. “Nothing about us, without us!” is the rallying cry when seeking a reliable means of continuous improvement.
  • Innovation: Your institution supports a culture of risk taking. Fresh ideas come from fresh insights and a willingness to engage in trial and error. Creating great places and experiences that work for everyone is the challenge. What new solutions are percolating within your team? The Universal Participation Initiative recognizes that accessibility is and should be a work in progress. UP is a direction, not a destination. UP is about process, not perfection.

Want to learn more?

Want your good work recognized? Apply for UP Designation.

Looking for help? Apply to the Innovation and Learning Network.

Need a place to start? Contact Charles Baldwin to host an ADA 101 information session.

Review the organizations of the UP Initiative – is yours on the list?

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