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Access Granted: NC Presenters Consortium Part 1

Ablr's Mike Iannelli talks to MaryJo Birchbach from NC Presenters Consortium on episode 9 of the Access Granted podcast.

Access Granted: North Carolina Presenters Consortium Part 1 Transcript. Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts.

Mike Iannelli: Welcome back to Access Granted. I’m your host, Mike Iannelli. On today’s episode, we’re talking with MaryJo Birschbach, the Communications and Development Manager at the North Carolina Presenters Consortium. Accessibility in the arts is something many overlook, but not NCPC. Their mission to prioritize accessibility includes a continued partnership with Ablr, website accessibility testing, and a commitment towards ADA compliance and universal design.

If you’re interested in learning more about accessibility in the arts, stay tuned for this fantastic conversation.

Mike Iannelli: Welcome back MaryJo Birschbach, is that right?

MaryJo Birschbach: It is.

Mike Iannelli: I said it correctly. I’m going to take off my hat, but I did want to give a shout out to Millbrook High School just because my children go there.

So I’m leaving the hat on just for a moment so the camera can see, then I will take it off. But welcome. So hey MaryJo. It’s really cool to be here. 

MaryJo Birschbach: Thank you for having me. 

Mike Iannelli: We were just chatting about vehicles and life. And you know, one of the things that I’m super excited for you being here is that our relationship was kind of cool.

Like it kind of started off with a phone call and then you and Catherine and I talked. And was like hey can we do like a little relationship, a little barter relationship? So I want, before we kind of jump into some of the other questions, I want you to take me through a little bit of your memory of that relationship. Because one of the things that is important with Ablr and in an accessibility world is that not everyone is prepared.

Not everyone has resources ready. Not everyone has budget ready. Not everyone is aware that it’s a necessary thing to do. But you all came at it with a really unique approach and it was like an honest approach and that I respect a great deal. So before we kind of jump into the crazy questions, talk to me a little bit about your memory of that experience.

MaryJo Birschbach: Absolutely. So we reached out to Ablr just as we were in the process of updating our website. My goal with the website is really just to make it more user friendly. And part of that discussion, there’s a woman that we work with through the NC Arts Council named Jamie Katz Court. And she’s amazing.

And she is a huge accessibility advocate. And she is their accessibility person there. In addition to a million other things that she does. And in our conversations with her, she was like, you know, you really should reach out to Ablr and see if they may be able to help you, you know, work to get the website accessible.

And you know, prior to talking to her about it, it wasn’t really something that I had considered specifically. Just kind of looking at it through that lens. And so those conversations with her really sort of propelled us forward in reaching out to you. And I think Cathy and I know we’re very good at understanding that we know what we don’t know.

Mike Iannelli: You are actually really good at that. 

MaryJo Birschbach: Yeah and that’s a good thing. 

Mike Iannelli: That’s integrity. 

MaryJo Birschbach: I think it’s important to know what you don’t know, but then also be open to learning what you don’t know and adapting. 

Mike Iannelli: What a perfect start. 

MaryJo Birschbach: And so really that was our goal when we talked with you that first day was just to get an understanding of okay, where are we with the website?

Mike Iannelli: Yeah. 

MaryJo Birschbach: And what do we need to do to make sure that it’s fully accessible to people that want to access it? 

Mike Iannelli: How are things now? I know that a lot of, lots of change. 

MaryJo Birschbach: Yeah. 

Mike Iannelli: Not only are you the Communications and Development Manager, right? But you also actually are doing the work. 

MaryJo Birschbach: Yes. 

Mike Iannelli: I love that you’re into the code piece. So tell me a little bit about that. How’s that going? And what got you into like, “I want to learn to do code?” That’s incredible. 

MaryJo Birschbach: It’s partially just I have to. In the scope of my job I don’t have to, but as a personal thing. 

Mike Iannelli: Yeah well that’s exactly what I’m asking. 

MaryJo Birschbach: Just the way that I am. 

Mike Iannelli: Yeah. 

MaryJo Birschbach: And the way that I like to see things through. NCPC we are basically a two-man team. It’s Cathy and I. 

Mike Iannelli: Great team by the way.

MaryJo Birschbach: Everything that happens one of us is manning that. And you know my responsibility is the website. And so when we get to a point where I’m like, okay, wait a minute. If there are things that are not accessible, I take it very personally that I need to fix that.

And I need to try to find a solution to make it better. So some of that has involved coding and learning different things. Which is you know, I’m definitely not going to say I’m an expert, not even close.

MaryJo Birschbach: But you 

Mike Iannelli: have fixed things. 

MaryJo Birschbach: I have and I am still learning. And trying to be proactive, especially as we create new pages and create new content and really just approaching it from the perspective of looking through the lens of accessibility.

I think that’s the biggest takeaway from the experience with Ablr. I’ve also had the opportunity to go to the LEAD® conference. 

Mike Iannelli: Talk about the LEAD® conference a little bit. Explain that to our audience because a lot of folks don’t know about it. 

MaryJo Birschbach: So the LEAD® Conference is the Leadership Exchange for Arts and Disability. And essentially it is a conference that is geared towards focusing on issues of accessibility and disability within the arts. And so there are people from around the country, probably say around the globe that attend and will present on different topics related to accessibility. And it’s really just an experience to see so many people who have just created a life for themselves that embraces what they’re dealing with. But also informs and supports and encourages other people to help in bringing everyone into the fold.

Mike Iannelli: You’re almost being invited into a new environment, a new experience. Something that a lot of people have never been exposed to. I don’t know. I was so humbled and so floored. It literally just changed who I was. And I felt the cool thing about it was I felt included. I’m going to try to read this. 

MaryJo Birschbach: Okay. 

Mike Iannelli: Okay. NCPC helps build and sustain a vibrant performing arts industry in North Carolina and regionally, promoting access to live performances that entertain, engage, educate, and inspire the human spirit. Now, I love that because it’s all human spirit. So talk to me a little bit because that’s kind of like your mission. That’s what you do. 

MaryJo Birschbach: So NCPC is an organization, we are a membership organization. And we work with presenters, which are those people that run theaters, and we also work with artists and agents. And our main goal is to bring artists and audiences together.

We want for the arts to be available to all people in all communities. And our goal is to be able to support our members to carry out that goal and mission. 

Mike Iannelli: That’s the thing I love. We’re so blessed that we get to work with arts industry and museums, and it always leads me into this sort of doorway of accessibility versus like compliance.

MaryJo Birschbach: Yeah. 

Mike Iannelli: So when you think about the arts as an example. A lot of times you know, the ADA was available, right, back 33 years ago, and it created an environment. I always explain to people, it’s again, a silly guy, simple minded person. But you know ADA was like, I can get in the door, I can get to the bathroom and I can get downstairs with an elevator or ramp.

I’m invited into at least invited to the show, but you can’t really participate in the show 

MaryJo Birschbach: Mhm. 

Mike Iannelli: Right? And so if you have a disability and you’re able to get into the museum or into the show, that’s amazing right? Access. 

MaryJo Birschbach: Access is important. 

Mike Iannelli: It is. 

MaryJo Birschbach: It’s the start. 

Mike Iannelli: Exactly, so talk about that.

MaryJo Birschbach: Yeah. I really think looking at, especially with the arts, yes, we want everyone to be able to physically be present and access experiences. But I really think that our community is taking into account and consideration the fact that we have to view our visitors experiences through their lens.

Everybody experiences the world differently and people that have disabilities that may impact their ability to enjoy art on a standard level or it’s something that you do have to really think about and consider in planning. And you know, I’m so proud. We have wonderful members in our organization. 

Mike Iannelli: I’ve met quite a few of them, I would agree.

MaryJo Birschbach: They are working proactively to create an experience for their patrons. And that is an experience for all of their patrons. Whether that’s having equipment available for audio description or for visual needs, things like that. Or having accessible seating, or just taking into consideration sensory needs, looking at people that may need a change in lighting, a change in sound, a different experience.

And we have members who are doing just incredible things, which is wonderful for people throughout North Carolina to hopefully get to partake in those experiences because ultimately that’s the key. You know, the arts is the great connector. It is something that is universal to all exactly. And so it should be accessible to all.

Not only to share it for people to share their own art, but to partake in the art of others. Because it is a window into a person’s experience. 

Mike Iannelli: Might’ve been on another podcast. I was talking about like, you could feel in the air that there was a change growing, things were changing. And sometimes I talk to people. And sometimes on social media people are like, “oh we’ve been hearing about this forever, nothing’s ever going to change.” Or yeah, well I don’t see the value, et cetera, et cetera. And there are naysayers everywhere. But to me, there shouldn’t be any naysaying anything. And truthfully it’s a business decision, right?

But it doesn’t have to be a business decision. Does it have to be a legal decision or can it just be a human decision?

MaryJo Birschbach: Yeah. Well and I think that’s where it starts. I think that’s where true change starts is that it is a human decision. It is a commitment to opening yourself up, knowing what you don’t know, and taking a step forward to engage with the unfamiliar and to try to look at situations from other people’s perspectives.

I think empathy plays a huge role in that. I think the ability to try to proactively create situations that will help support people is an important part of it too. 

Mike Iannelli: How did you get there though? Because that’s a hard thing. 

MaryJo Birschbach: I think it’s who I am. I’ve come to just sort of realize those things about myself.

You know, you take those personality tests and it’s you’re this or you’re that. 

Mike Iannelli: I’m jumping in early, but like, I think it just naturally segue into like your background. Because you’re an advocate, and sort of, you’re talking about being born with it. Like this is who you are, but your past experiences in your life, you were a high school or middle school? High school.

MaryJo Birschbach: Well, I started out as a middle school teacher. I taught English and I taught history. I love middle school. You know, most people in college were going for elementary. Cause they’re like, they’re so cute and little or high school because they’re independent. And middle school is just always sort of that.

Mike Iannelli: So you’re one of those people.

MaryJo Birschbach: I am. I’m a weirdo that way. I’ll always say I’m a middle school weirdo. It’s just, I never outgrew it. But I loved the fact that middle school is just really that beautiful segue between being little and being big. And they’re lost and they’re confused and they’re messy and they’re silly and they’re funny and they’re emotional and they’re all the things. And I just really embraced that because I don’t know, I love that.

I love the imperfectly perfect. It I think, lended itself to my adaptability. I’m definitely someone who can pivot very quickly if I need to. But it also helps to open you up to the fact that you’re working with people. You can put a label on people all day long and everybody I think gets caught up in the label.

But the reality is when you’re in a classroom, you’re working with individuals. Individuals have needs, have desires, have emotions, have experiences, and all of those things impact their interactions with you, their interactions in the classroom, and their willingness to learn. And when you think about that, I just think it develops that empathy and that understanding of if I want somebody to learn, I need to know how they’re going to learn that.

And I need to be able to be adaptable in my delivery or in my activity, or just more persistent or present or helpful or not helpful or back off or be there. You know you have to be able to read those nuances. 

Mike Iannelli: Across multiple students.

MaryJo Birschbach: Right. 

Mike Iannelli: And 20, 30 students potentially.

MaryJo Birschbach: Right, yeah. 

Mike Iannelli: And as your next evolution. 

MaryJo Birschbach: Yeah. 

Mike Iannelli: Hundreds of students. 

MaryJo Birschbach: Yeah. I mean, when I was a teacher I taught probably not 120 kids a day. 

Mike Iannelli: And they all have unique experiences. 

MaryJo Birschbach: Absolutely. 

Mike Iannelli: Unique personal lives, unique family lives, unique issues, unique struggles. 

MaryJo Birschbach: Right. 

Mike Iannelli: And as an instructor, as a teacher, you kind of got to balance a whole lot.

MaryJo Birschbach: Sometimes you’re going to get it right. And sometimes you’re not going to get it right. And that it’s a journey that you’re taking together. I think that’s a really important part of education and getting kids to buy into it. 

Mike Iannelli: What you said was perfectly because you could just take children and you could substitute it for humans, just adults. And say, it’s like knowing what you don’t know, being open minded to communicate, having compassion and understanding and empathy and all those things.

And it’s really, it’s very relatable. So talk about the principal side. And then I want to talk about how you switched and then what the impacts have been. Cause there’s a lot of good stuff here. 

MaryJo Birschbach: Yeah, so I went from being a teacher and transitioned into administration and I worked for six years, about. I don’t know, something like that. Six years, six, I don’t know. Anyway, with like third through eighth grade, it was a great experience. And taking what I learned in the classroom, which was being adaptable, to then taking that to a leadership role and being able to model that and support that with teachers, with parents, and with kids.

Mike Iannelli: Do you feel like your experience as an administrator and a teacher is really kind of transformed your thinking as it relates to sort of human nature, kindness, accessibility, inclusion, DEI, the whole environment that you’re in now? Talk a little bit about that. 

 As I said, being in a classroom, you recognize that the people that you’re working with are people, they come with different experiences.

MaryJo Birschbach: And so for me when I’m working with people, I do take into consideration that they have other experiences that have brought them to this point that may dictate how they respond or react. And I also recognize they may have disabilities. They may have disabilities that we see right? That are evident and some that are not and recognize that. At the end of the day my goal is to help people. Not people with, not people without, not people who are, not people who are not, not people who check a box, not people who don’t check a box. I’m there to help people. And in order to do that, I have to be willing to adapt myself to what they need, understand that, and then try to support that. But it’s a choice and I make mistakes too, and I’m definitely not perfect. And sometimes I hit the nail on the head and sometimes I most definitely do not. But I will apologize and I will take responsibility for it. But you know that’s my goal. I want to help people.

Mike Iannelli: What made you say, there’s something more for me, there’s something different for me. Or I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve here and now it’s time. Like that takes a lot of courage to sort of change your life, especially after you become sort of accustomed to it. 

MaryJo Birschbach: Right. 

Mike Iannelli: That’s a huge deal.

MaryJo Birschbach: Yeah. Well and you know, being an administrator is, and a teacher and educator in general, you are working so hard all the time. I had my youngest with COVID and everything and just decided, alright, I need to take a step back and spend some time with her and with the kids, and at home. And just, you know take a break. When an opportunity is ready and when I’m meant to do something, I will. And then Cathy reached out to me. 

Mike Iannelli: I’m bummed she couldn’t be here today.

MaryJo Birschbach: I know, me too, she’s awesome.. 

Mike Iannelli: And I want to give a shout out to Cathy because she’s amazing. 

MaryJo Birschbach: She is. But yeah, she called me and she said would you be interested in interviewing for a marketing and development position? And I’m like well, I don’t have any experience in marketing or development, but sure. 

Mike Iannelli: How long you been there now? 

MaryJo Birschbach: I’ve been there going on two years. 

Mike Iannelli: Did you know, Cathy before? 

MaryJo Birschbach: I did. Yeah we worked together. Yeah we worked together. 

Mike Iannelli: Your background is actually perfect for this. I’m just wondering if you think that humans have to be broken before they can actually see or go through something radical to see what they’ve been missing. 

MaryJo Birschbach: I think that people inherently have experiences that break them at different degrees, right? Your level of broken is going to be different from mine. I’ve dealt with things that some people probably couldn’t come back from or would have a really hard time. But I got through that based on all the little smaller cracks, right? All those little things. So I think everyone, whether you’re living the golden life or not, you always experience adversity and you always experience those hard times.

Now the level is going to be different and you know, how you cope with that is different. So I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t think it’s exclusive to being broken. I think everybody is a little broken. But I don’t think that, I think that’s the point, right? I mean, if you’re not how do you coexist with other people and how do you, right?

I mean that’s the thing. I don’t think we’re ever supposed to be completely whole. I think the goal is to find those things, those experiences, those jobs, those hobbies, those people. that keep those cracks filled, right?

Mike Iannelli: So it’s the attitude. 

MaryJo Birschbach: It is. I think it’s 

Mike Iannelli: And we’ve all heard that our whole lives, right? But then one day it resonates. 

MaryJo Birschbach: Oh, it’s Cathy. 

Mike Iannelli: Oh, answer. 

MaryJo Birschbach: Should we answer? 

Mike Iannelli: Yeah. 

MaryJo Birschbach: Hi, Cathy. We’re in the middle of recording. 

Mike Iannelli: Hey, Cathy. How are you? 

Cathy Gouge: We have certainly enjoyed working with Ablr, and I’m so happy to have you as a partner, and the service and relationships that we’ve formed with your staff is amazing. So thank you so much for helping us you know as an organization move forward with an accessible website.

Mike Iannelli: That’s awesome. I’m so glad she called. 

So one of the things I want to go back to this question I have for you. Some people, and I can understand, I totally understand it. I don’t want to talk about my life. I don’t want to talk about what happened to me. I’m struggling right now, it’s not your business. Leave me alone, don’t make me feel uncomfortable. I get that a hundred percent, check. I get that. The flip side of that is if we don’t talk about it, and if we don’t have honest and hard conversations. If we don’t have those conversations, how can we get better? I guess is my point. And what is your position on, cause I understand both sides, but like as a whole we have to talk about it.

MaryJo Birschbach: I agree. I mean, I think as a society, definitely we need to talk about it. I think also kind of reframing it, right? People will say, well what’s wrong with you? What happened to you? Why is it wrong necessarily? I mean, it might not have been a positive experience, right? But it doesn’t necessarily have to be wrong.

It can be something that yes, I do have a disability. But that disability allows me a different level of understanding. It allows me to function in the world in a completely different way than someone else who doesn’t share that disability. That’s not wrong. And you know, I think that if people can just approach it from the perspective of I don’t necessarily need to know. I’m here if you want to share it. But at the end of the day, I’m here to help.

Mike Iannelli: And how do we as an administrator, ex administrator, ex teacher, ex principal, that is the, the crutch of what we’re trying to change. 

MaryJo Birschbach: Yeah. 

Mike Iannelli: Like how do we teach people that are curious or not educated or struggle or embarrassed or don’t know the right approach to asking the right question to open the conversation to help change the world?

MaryJo Birschbach: It comes with not necessarily talking, sometimes it’s just listening, being present, being there for a person who is experiencing their life, disability or not. I think it is that presence and it is that willingness to not fill that time with talk. Because people will open up and will share when they want to on their terms, but they won’t if they don’t feel that it’s a safe environment.

And if you’re conditioned to feel like you constantly have to defend yourself or your experience. It is off-putting to share that, to feel like that I have to constantly explain myself to you so you understand. And it is a barrier in the sense that maybe they are missing people who genuinely want to know and want to learn.

But I think that person who genuinely wants to know and wants to learn has to take themselves down a good bit to know it’s not personal. This is a part of their experience because if they’ve gone through this time where they’ve had to share these things or they’ve been treated differently. They’ve been dealt with adversity, their response may not be what you expect.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that you give up. It means you change your approach. It means you listen and say, okay I understand. How can I support you? What can I do to support you? That’s it. That’s what it’s about. It is about wanting to help. It is about wanting to be present. It is about wanting to support other people, all people, everyone.

And I mean that I think that’s an important part is, we’re not choosing to do it because of something or in absence of something. It is because everyone is included. You know I grew up with. The big word that I grew up with was tolerance. We have to be tolerant of other people. I mean I used to hear that word in school all the time.

And I grew up in New York City. So I mean I wasn’t like, I’m like small town girl. I grew up in Queens. So we have to be tolerant and I feel like that was just the word of the time and I remember it, just this visceral reaction, even as a kid of like, why do we have to be tolerant of other people?

Why can’t we not be open? Why can’t we not be accepting? Why can’t we not be just okay? And want to learn from other people and grow in that experience. Why do we have to be tolerant? Because to me tolerant is like “I’m putting up with you being here.” And nobody wants to be treated that way. It’s not enough. Everyone deserves a right to be where they are and to be in the experiences that they’re having. And it’s not about tolerating. It’s about learning, it’s about accepting, it’s about being able to open that little broken crack in yourself to make room for someone else. And that’s for everyone.

And I think the way you start those conversations is to be humble, to be present, to learn, maybe not ask questions. Let people talk, let people share and go from there. Because if they feel safe enough to do that, then at least you have a chance to make a connection. And show what it is you have to offer.

Mike Iannelli: On this episode of Access Granted, we’ve explored the intersection of accessibility and the arts with MaryJo Birchbach from the North Carolina Presenters Consortium. From its partnership with Ablr to its innovative approaches to inclusive webinars and virtual experiences, the NCPC is leading the charge for accessibility in the performing arts.

Stay tuned for part two of our conversation, where we’ll delve even deeper into NCPC’s current initiatives and future goals for accessibility and disability inclusion.