As part of the Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival back in September 2016, Tony Heaton, Chief Executive of Shape Arts – one of the organisations delivering Unlimited – chaired Deepening the Impact, a debate focusing on the experiences of organisations working with disabled artists as part of the Unlimited programme.
Joined by Helen Keall from the Salisbury International Festival, their recent artist-in-residence Aidan Moesby, Louise Gardner from Watershed in Bristol, and deaf artist, consultant and trainer David Ellington, Tony highlighted the importance for both Shape and Artsadmin of ‘promoting artists, and thinking about ways that we can work with venues to deepen impact’. Working with over 300 Unlimited Allies, some of who are already very engaged, and some who will be in the future, is an important part of Unlimited; it’s not just about promoting fantastic work by disabled artists, but it’s also about helping organisations look at their venues, their structures, the services they offer, and how they can make them more accessible. Tony continued, ‘It’s about building confidence in teams, deepening diversity and widening inclusion with your programmes’.
Helen Keall spoke about the thinking behind engaging someone to work with Salisbury International Festival, a 16 day programme with about 200 events across ‘all kinds of art forms in all kinds of venues’. ‘We wanted someone to come and work within the Festival team, to be a peer and a bit of a provocateur, to make us think how we were putting things out to the public and audience engagement with our programme. Aidan’s approach and his artwork was quite playful, though it definitely made quite hard hitting points, but in quite a gentle way. We felt it fitted in to the ethos of the Festival,’ said Helen. The work was enabled by resources from Unlimited Impact, ultimately funded via Spirit of 2012 Olympic legacy funds.
‘About 70% of my work involves being brought into organisations and working with people through conversations, ideas and process,’ Aidan commented. His practice is research and conversation based, and he had warmed to the words ‘provoke and subvert’ in the Salisbury open call. ‘We wanted the process to be a two-way exchange, not paying for someone to come and help us tick boxes or make a few tweaks,’ added Helen. In the past, Aidan felt he’d approached organisations in a rather ‘bull in a china shop and Ra! Ra! Ra!’ kind of way, but he’s now finding diplomacy a better approach. ‘A bit like buying shares in a company rather than chaining yourself to their doors,’ he concluded.
Helen shared that she hadn’t wanted Aidan to be ticking boxes as the equalities trainer, but to keep this separate. Aidan reassured the team, joining them from the outset at a team meeting, that he wasn’t going to be ‘the disability police,’ but more a point of reflection on their practice, ‘and five pence in the box for using mentalist language,’ he quipped.
Louise Gardner, Head of Communications at Watershed, shared how the organisation’s work with David Ellington helped develop their accessibility and become more welcoming to the deaf community: ‘The previous autumn, we hosted a weekend celebrating deaf film with BBC See Hear and it made us recognise our knowledge and our understanding in how to meet the needs of deaf audiences was low’. The organisation wanted to be matched with someone who could help them see things from a different perspective, beyond tokenism. She went on, ‘The match with David was a natural fit in ensuring that the deaf community might feel genuinely engaged’. ‘The best way for me was to go out into the deaf community and actually ask them what they wanted me to try to achieve in my time with the organisation’ David added.
The requests included developing staff confidence in communicating with deaf people, increasing signage and making copy on the website easier to understand. Of note was the in-house decision that all staff would order their lunch using sign language or finger spelling on Fridays. ‘It worked really well,’ said David, ‘People would have a little panic initially but we were saying, come on you’ve got to practice.’
Louise then went on to say that one of the ‘best outcomes’ was ‘the sense of shared understanding across departmental teams and just getting to know each other better, through the sheer enjoyment of David’s work.’
On the subject of training, Tony added ‘I think often people think disability equality or deaf awareness training is going to be fairly dry, dull and worthy, but as Aidan said earlier, it’s about understanding issues rather than telling people what they can and can’t do.’
David went on to speak about the additional monthly event aimed directly at the deaf community called Deaf Conversations about Cinema. This was very successful and a great way to get the deaf community into Watershed and engaging them in proper conversation. ‘What we call ‘Deaf conversations about Cinema’ is completely embedded in the programme and we are committed to continue working with David on this and more training with him internally,’ said Louise. ‘We are also working with a really good network of interpreters, developing awareness of how we need to improve our access across the whole organisation.’
‘It’s now about how we might use these examples to talk to other allies and say to them, ‘look we’ve got really good experience here.’ It’s about how to grow and embed this amazing work we’re involved in and developing; and it’s also a really interesting, fun, great thing for staff rather than some sort of duty that you need to impose on an already stretched and busy team,’ said Tony. ‘That’s probably the best message to give out to people who might want to think about getting involved in this.’
Finally, from Helen: ‘the relationship and connection with Unlimited is the way to connect through to the talent and that’s definitely what we are learning and building on now.’
Want to find out more about becoming an Unlimited Ally? Please contact Jo Verrent at email@example.com