Jessica Thom dressed in a blue and white superhero outfit is standing inside a brightly lit fairground ride to the right of the image with 6 people inside the ride cart to the left of the image
Jessica Thom - Backstage in Biscuit land, Photo by Sam Robinson

Beyond Tick Boxes

I’m James, one of Unlimited’s current trainees. Back in August I attended Beyond Tick Boxes, a panel discussion at the 2017 Edinburgh Festival Fringe as part of the Fringe Central Programme, organised by Unlimited. Panel members were: Jess Thom of Touretteshero, David Jubb, Artistic Director of Battersea Arts Centre, artist Aidan Moesby, Clare Reddington, Creative Director of Watershed, Annabel Turpin, Artistic Director of ARC Stockton, and Vici Wreford Sinnott, Creative Lead on Cultural Shift. The discussion looked at how arts organisations can go further than just ‘ticking boxes’ from a diversity standpoint, when it comes to disability and access, instead looking at the benefits greater inclusivity can bring. Below are a few things I picked up from the talk – some essential bits of info any arts organisation would benefit from knowing.

Imagine you work for an arts organisation (maybe you do) which is looking to be more inclusive of disabled people. Well, what do you do? The most important thing, first and foremost, is to ensure your desire is genuine; Vici pointed out that ‘we are challenging deeply entrenched inequalities experienced by disabled people at all levels in the arts and in wider society,’ so it really isn’t enough just to say ‘hey we want to work with more disabled people, look how fair we are.’ Think about what you want your outcomes to be: are they sincere? Is there creative potential or does it appear tokenistic? Those answers will come about through conversation, sitting down to find how you can make your mark in a way that is both meaningful to you as an organisation, but also in a way that challenges those profound inequalities.

Once you’ve decided your outcomes, remember that inclusivity is a structural thing. Yes, it’s important for your building to be accessible (who would have thought?) but this really is just one part of an organisation’s overall approach to disability, regarding everything from your artistic policy right down to a collective understanding by the workforce of The Social Model of Disability. When you look at inclusivity as an all-prevailing thing, the attitude that access should be built in at every level should come about naturally. Watershed in Bristol holds monthly deaf-led conversations about its cinema programme, ARC has – whilst deepening the team’s understanding of the Social Model – had changes made to its artistic policy and programme, and Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), amongst other things, now has a more accessible building (regular lift problems notwithstanding). The approach of these organisations isn’t purely focused on physical access, but rather on creating a more inclusive environment.

Access requirements exist on a wide scale, correlating not only to visible impairments but also to those which are invisible, meaning the requirements themselves often go unconsidered by others; Aidan Moesby, whose work tends to tackle themes around mental health, put it like this: ‘Everybody knows that we need wide doors, we need a ramp. We might need signers or stenographers, or other access needs, but what about psychological needs?’ These psychological access requirements absolutely need to be considered, not least because they are shared by a lot of people; Annabel pointed out that Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio is a loud and hectic space, which is great if you’re comfortable with that, but not everyone is and some do need a quieter space to collect their thoughts and rest. Keep in mind that what works for one person won’t necessarily work or be accessible for the next, so finding a way to ensure that everyone (and I mean everyone) has their access needs met is the key to providing greater inclusivity.

All of this can appear quite serious, and probably a little daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes it’s important to not undervalue your inner child – that ability to see the “humour and lightness of touch, and playfulness” in the work you do – as that sense of play is so important in realising creative potential, fostering collaborative partnerships, problem solving, and creating an all-round better working environment. Now whether that’s Jess Thom seeing the humour in her Tourette’s or Cultural Shift being described as a lovely slice of cake, seeing the fun side in your work will naturally bring about greater inclusivity through empathy.

Maybe you don’t feel the need to be more inclusive, fine, but organisations with this attitude – particularly arts organisations – are at risk of going stale, and are more than likely not really heading in the right direction. The benefits of greater inclusivity are immense, both to organisations and to the wide and varied audiences that they want to attract. The main thing is that by giving disability a stronger voice in the work you do, you are helping to “paint a more complete cultural picture”, according to Annabel from ARC. Again, it’s not very hard to do. Watershed understood that when they produced their short film Cinema Etiquette – it’s shown to everyone who visits their cinema, and you can watch it here. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel, little initiatives like this go a long way in breaking down barriers for everyone, abled and disabled included.

Thinking about tackling questions of inclusivity within your organisation, but not sure where to start? Shape Arts, one of Unlimited’s two delivery partners, offer Access Audits and Disability Equality Training to arts and cultural professionals.

A complete transcript of the discussion can be downloaded here