Lehigh Valley student wins award for research on accessibility in arts spaces

two women reviewing a research poster

Elise Schaffer (right) explained her research project at the local Undergraduate Research Symposium held at the Lehigh Valley campus in April.

Credit: Dennille Schuler

CENTER VALLEY, Pa. — Penn State Lehigh Valley student Elise Schaffer has a passion for making arts spaces accessible to people with disabilities and chose to do research about how most arts spaces are not accessible.

“I think that art is about each individual person's experience and everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy the arts in a way that is comfortable and accessible to them,” Schaffer said.

Schaffer plans to graduate in December. Her time at the Lehigh Valley campus is defined by the strong interpersonal relationships she established with her professors and classmates.

“Penn State Lehigh Valley offers such a unique college experience for students. This campus has the benefit of being small, which allows students to develop close relationships with teachers and other students. I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world,” Schaffer said.

Liz Flaherty, associate teaching professor of art history, coordinator of arts administration, and co-coordinator of the honors program at Penn State Lehigh Valley, noticed Schaffer’s passion for accessibility in arts spaces. Flaherty approached Schaffer about doing a research project to submit to the Undergraduate Research Symposium.

The project originally stemmed from an internship Schaffer completed last fall. With Flaherty serving as her faculty mentor, they started collaborating earlier this year on the project.

“I’m no expert, but in my opinion, I think spaces should offer consistent, accessible options to people with disabilities,” Schaffer said. “Venues that can build accessible options into their everyday operations are venues that are truly embracing inclusion.”

Schaffer’s project, titled “Accessibility in Arts Spaces: How Modern Technology and Creative Adaptations Promote Inclusion,” explored the impact of arts spaces not being accessible to people with disabilities. In the past, she worked with Lehigh Valley Arts Council and had become very connected with the topic of the research project.

“I think the biggest realization to come from this research was that this is a massive discussion that needs to be had across all industries,” Schaffer said. “The big question is: how can businesses go above and beyond what is legally required to offer accessible options for people with disabilities?”

In April, Schaffer won first place in the arts and humanities category at the Eastern Regional Undergraduate Research Symposium held at Penn State Hazleton. This achievement was just as special for Flaherty as it was for Schaffer.

“There are few things as rewarding as an instructor, to work with a student as passionate, dedicated and capable as Elise,” Flaherty said. “Her enthusiasm is absolutely contagious, and I truly enjoyed talking through the research with her. It was a mutual process of discovery.”

Although the Undergraduate Research Symposium is heavily focused on mathematical and scientific research, Schaffer said that it was exciting to participate in because she was able to share a research topic based on an obstacle in the arts industry.  

“It is amazing how many people I have gotten the chance to talk with about my research, and how many people have told me that either [they] themselves or a loved one would benefit from a particular access adaptation talked about in this project,” Schaffer said. “Winning first place in the arts and humanities category was really exciting.”

Schaffer’s research experience and coursework has helped her find what she wants to do after graduation.

“This research project helped me narrow down what I want to do since my graduation date is coming quick,” Schaffer said. “When looking for job opportunities, I’ve been more focused on jobs regarding arts and accessibility.”


Dennille Schuler

Public Relations Specialist
Penn State Lehigh Valley

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