Wide shot of Jo Verrent and artist, Aidan Moesby, holding a very large white balloon up, both clasping their hands around of the base of it. There is a symmetry to the picture in that Aidan and Jo are stood roughly opposite each other in profile, with the base of the balloon situated at the centre of the image. Jo is smiling, whereas Aidan observes the balloon with a look of concentration on his face.
Photo by Julian Lister

Eleven top tips for accessible commissioning

Unlimited, in its current form, has been running a commissioning programme aimed at disabled artists since 2013. What have we learnt about accessible commissioning? Jo Verrent, Senior Producer for Unlimited, gives us her top eleven tips (we did try to make it ten…)


  1. Use clear and simple language – jargon is a barrier. If you want the very best ideas and applications from the widest range of people, use language that everyone understands – great tips from the Plain English Campaign here


  1. Clear criteria and use only those criteria – be clear about what you want, and how someone can evidence that they have what you want. If you are all about the art – then let people show you and tell you about their work right at the start of an application. Don’t ask for things you won’t actually check or don’t actually need.


  1. Access: accessible forms, alternatives and access to advice – access is a legal right, so think through what it means to you. Great to have a swish online portal, but what about those who can’t access it? Make sure you offer alternatives. Check everything with screen readers and real people with access needs and make sure you have time to fix any problems before you go live. Ensure people can reach a named person with any questions or queries – there will always be some. And pay for access support – you can’t provide all the support that is needed just from your side – check out Arts Council England’s access fund guidance for examples of what you could do


  1. Timescales – often forgotten, but time is an access issue too. Make sure you have time to really reach people, time to sort access requirements, time to talk to people. Give time particularly to getting the message out (and use all formats you can – we quite like a Twitter Q&A for example). At Unlimited we always leave a couple of days between a deadline and sharing applications with panel members to ensure we can deal with the unexpected.


  1. Diverse selection panels – Unlimited always has 50% minimum disabled people on a selection panel; if we are selecting disabled artists, this makes perfect sense for us. Who should be on your panels? Often panels are narrow, which can make their choices narrow too. And give panels power – no point having a panel if you aren’t going to empower them to really make decisions.


  1. Funnel the process – applying takes time and resources so think about how you might streamline. We have a very simple ‘expression of interest’ form and then the panel members work to create a shortlist from that. Only shortlisted applicants complete the full form (and have access to support from our team too)


  1. Build in flexibility – no one can get everything right all the time, so build in flexibility. Listen and be prepared to change what you do. Our understanding of access and people’s needs is evolving all the time, so be prepared to learn new things and make changes accordingly


  1. Evaluate and adapt – Make it a formal thing too. Ask those who apply, successful and unsuccessful, what is working and what isn’t and then adapt your processes for next time. See it as an iterative process rather than a fixed one. If there is a recognised problem – admit it, own it and change it. You’ve created the barrier, not the people who are finding it hard to get past. Often people are worried about damaging their relationship with those who commission or fund them, so make it explicit that you want and value opinions.


  1. Feedback – if people have taken the time to apply, surely you can take the time to offer genuinely useful feedback? We think those applying deserve as much feedback as we can provide – in a format that suits them not us. Yes it takes time. Yes, it can be painful and hard (on both sides) but if we are looking to help and develop people, surely it’s the fairest thing we can do?


  1. Support – Unlimited offers support to anyone who is shortlisted, not just those who gain awards. Sometimes this is tiny things, like recommending them to other funders and writing letters of support. Or sometimes it’s about paying for mentoring support or just having a chat and signposting people to other places.


  1. Transparency – let people know what’s going on. How many applications have you received, how many are you likely to fund. What was the previous success rate and so on. People really appreciate knowing where they are in a process and it can cut down on miscommunications later too.

For further insight, watch our short film focusing on accessible commissioning. An audio described version is available here.