A white woman with blond hair wearing a dark green sweater is sitting down on a bed, a golden-haired dog in front of her.
Unlimited Trustee Sorcha Pringle (Image Credit: Unknown).

Ableism in arts (and charity) based admin

A blog with Sorcha Pringle

Every process consists of many small steps all of which are required in order to achieve the desired result. When you delve in, it’s amazing how many of these ‘small steps’ are designed for some, rather than modifiable to the needs of all. Setting up Unlimited as an independent organisation gives us a chance to start from scratch and build our systems anew. But it also means we need to battle with systems we have no control over. Senior Producer Jo Verrent and Unlimited Trustee Sorcha Pringle chat about some of the barriers out there…

Jo Verrent: All we want as disabled people is access – for systems to be as accessible to us as anyone else. If the main system isn’t, then we want an alternative route. One that is accessible but also equally easy to access, to enable us to complete tasks in exactly the same way as non-disabled people with no disruption to our flow. However, in many situations this is simply not the case, these provisions are just not baked in. Sorcha, can you tell me what you experience as key barriers for general admin in the arts?

Sorcha Pringle: As a disabled artist, I experience several recurring barriers. The majority of these relate to how organisations provide essential recruitment information and subsequent essential documents. Now, it is highly likely that somewhere on a job description I will find a phrase such as ‘we welcome applications from all sections of society,’ or ‘we especially welcome applications from those who are underrepresented in our sector.’ Why then, as a disabled person, do I more often than not have to contact an organisation directly as their application forms and job descriptions are not in screen reader friendly formats?

JV: I’m taking notes here! And recruitment is the first step to any organisation diversifying its staff, so you’d think it’s a critical place to ensure access?

SP: Yes! As a sector, we have to ensure that our processes – right from recruitment through to sustainable employment – are truly inclusive and supportive of all sections of society. Another huge issue is organisations simply not being aware of the support which they can obtain to help – both for the organisation and employees – like Access to Work.

JV: It’s such a secret still. We’ve done some blogs on Access to Work before and DAO have a great guide too. No excuses for arts organisations not knowing about the scheme and how valuable it is.

SP: I’ve hit attitudinal barriers on several occasions when applying for jobs, which imply that as someone with no sight, I would be a burden on the company, and they would have to drastically change their systems to fit my needs. Often, this assumption is made without any in-depth discussion of what the job entails in order for me to articulate what I think I might need in order to fulfil certain tasks and what I know is possible, including by using Access to Work support. And it disregards any assets which I have shown I would contribute both at application and interview stage. Basically, all the focus is on what the barriers are and not on what I can contribute.

JV: Oh, the barriers! We came up against one recently, didn’t we? Around a very simple thing – signing a form. Tell us about that?

SP: It was as we were setting up as a CIO. It felt like the barriers just kept on coming. The process confirmed for me exactly why there are such a low proportion of disabled people in trusteeships. My access needs include requiring documents in a screen reader friendly format and providing electronic signatures. It is also incredibly exhausting to scroll large documents using a screen reader and it takes significantly longer to do so, adding to the exhaustion. And for this reason, I, like many others for a variety of reasons, find extremely large documents exceptionally challenging and at times too exhausting to process. It struck me whilst reading the long documents provided by the Charity Commission that much of what they were saying was at odds with the systems they have.

JV: What do you mean? There was a dissonance?

SP: Yes, the text was clear that they were wanting the people that they were approving to be Trustees to be inclusive and accessible whilst providing the information on how and why in an extremely inaccessible format. Due to the significantly large amounts of text, I had to be read to. This way I do not process things as easily as if I was reading them independently. It took an incredible amount of time. I then had to be assisted to sign documents which I found to be an additionally stressful and demeaning process. I have not created my own writing since I was very young, and to do so added unnecessary stress to what we were being told should be an inclusive process.

JV: Tell us a bit more about what we’re getting right and wrong with our board set up, plus anything else you’ve noticed with access at Unlimited so far.

SP: As with anything, there are always improvements to be made, new access barriers to break down. There is no such thing as ‘fully accessible,’ and implying that any process is so is misleading, and ultimately damaging to your organisation. I believe it is much more important to be honest about the barriers that do exist within your organisation, as by hiding them you’re taking away the autonomy of a disabled person to be able to make a decision as to whether they wish to engage in your services.

In terms of Unlimited, I have experienced a fantastic level of flexibility and adaptability within the organisation. One particular way in which Unlimited is making being a trustee an accessible role for as many people as possible is by having several forms of communications and alternating the type of meetings that takes place. This includes full board meetings and small breakout groups when there is specific business to discuss.

One challenge that we as a board are still trying to overcome is how best to communicate in-between meetings, providing the best level of prior information to those who require it without overwhelming others with lots of emails. I have been part of the steering group which is currently researching accessible platforms for communications. The opportunity to do work outside board meetings is also rewarding to me as it gives an additional way in which I can contribute even if sometimes I do not find bigger meetings as accessible.

This is made challenging by platforms being partially accessible or fully accessible to some and not others, exacerbated by the fact that legislation on accessible technology and communication platforms is minimal and does not cover many aspects of accessibility.

JV: Can you leave us with three things that could improve accessibility across the board?

SP: I think we should be sharing experience across industries because there’s a wealth of knowledge outside the arts. We should be opening up opportunities to learn from those people who have a different experience from us and paying them for that time. We should instil value in the expertise which comes through a diverse range of lived experience, not just the value that comes from qualifications on paper.