After her recent trip to the Southbank Centre’s Unlimited festival, Nina Thomas shares her thoughts on access barriers to arts education:
I recently had the pleasure of attending the Unlimited events held at the South Bank Centre – a great few days of talks, workshops and exhibitions. I went away feeling engaged, inspired and uplifted.
Hearing loss can be both exhausting and isolating, but what struck me most about the events was that I was able to access quality information and engage freely without feeling drained or having to try hard to fit in. I laughed so much too. It was particularly fantastic being able to be to laugh having understood what had been said and why it was so funny; an experience I rarely have these days, but one of life’s simple pleasures.
I hadn’t developed super powers and my hearing had not magically been restored. Instead the barriers to access had been removed; I could get on with enjoying myself and learning new things. Wouldn’t it be great if all events were like this?
I have always been completely deaf in my right ear, but I grew up being able to hear reasonably well and attended mainstream school – so I did not learn BSL. It was not until a year after graduating that I experienced a significant sudden hearing loss, and the isolation and frustrations that come with that (which many others also face). The experience of once being able to access cultural events with ease was lost too. The frustration was felt not just by myself, but also my family and friends. Trips to the cinema became off limits, unless films were subtitled (not widely offered). I was living in Derby at the time and despite being told that the area had a high population of deaf and hard of hearing people, it was surprising how many cultural events were no longer accessible for me. I was comforted by the fact I had chosen to pursue my studies in the field of the visual arts – surely allowing me to rely more on my other senses and abilities. But what I hadn’t realised was how difficult I would find it to keep accessing the arts and particularly arts education.
When I moved to London I naively thought that it would all be easier. Instead I have been surprised how difficult it has been for me to access art education and events here. For example, I recently wanted to attend a paid talk at a major London gallery, so I emailed in advance to see if it was accessible and I was assured it would be. On the basis of past experience I turned up to the event early to check that the loop was working and was told it was. But when I sat down to enjoy the talk I found the system was not on. I tried to attract the attention of the staff, signalling the loop was not working, but I received no help. I sat there unable to hear a word for over an hour and a half. Imagine sitting in a room not understanding anything that is going on. I was obviously annoyed and upset and so I later emailed to explain my experience. I was issued a refund, but the organisation refused to acknowledge there was a problem with the loop system or their services. I use this technology on a daily basis and have a good understanding of how it works now, and I knew my hearing aid was not at fault. I offered some suggestions for improving access, including providing live captioning. I also offered to test the loop system so that it would work next time for others who might also want to attend talks. I got very little response and, given the size and reputation of the gallery, I was surprised by their lack of interest in improving access. This is one example – I could list many other events like this, and other organisations where I have had similar experiences. Surprisingly it’s often the smaller – and less well funded organisations – that can best accommodate my needs and who are most grateful for feedback on how to improve access. The larger arts organisations that claim to be the most accessible are often the least accessible to me, and the least willing to improve services and access.
I feel very strongly about the need to improve access across the board, so that everyone has the chance to learn, develop and engage with what’s on offer. I praise the work of Unlimited, Shape and many others for the great events they offer, but ask the question: why aren’t all events like these? Why is it so unusual? There is no excuse for arts organisations not to be accessible, and I am tired of the excuses given. I wish more organisations would respond to feedback and put measures in place to ensure that I and others can enjoy their programmes of events without such a struggle.
I often imagine what it might be like if my hearing were restored and life returned to the ease with which I experienced the world previously; that I could access events, education and the arts without thinking about my access needs; without having to check if I will be welcome. However, I am starting to imagine what it might be like if instead my environment could change, so that the places I wished to visit were truly accessible. The fantasy London art galleries and educational events that I imagined when I lived in Derby – places where all are welcome – is now increasingly possible, thanks to technology. There are now so many innovative and exciting, not to mention creative ways to make events accessible to all. And in a properly inclusive society it shouldn’t just be deaf and disabled people pushing for such changes.