We invited our allies Absolutely Cultured (formerly known as the UK City of Culture 2017) to share what they learnt about access and inclusion when they hosted IETM Hull, an international meeting earlier this year.
Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and are not necessarily shared by Unlimited.
Over 28-31 March 2019 Absolutely Cultured, Arts Council England and the British Council, welcomed over 500 national and international delegates to IETM (an meeting of an international network for contemporary performing arts) in Hull to explore the reality of inclusion in today’s societies, in their artistic representations and in the process of creation. Through a series of daytime plenary sessions and an evening theatre programme we examined issues around race, ethnicity, faith, disability, age, gender, sexuality, class and economic disadvantage and any social and institutional barriers that prevent people from participating in and enjoying the arts.
In her powerful opening keynote creative producer, social entrepreneur and consultant Sade Brown quoted diversity consultant and author Verna Myers:
“Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being invited to dance.”
This quote set the tone for the event and opened up many more questions to be explored over the 4 day event including: Is involving everyone something we want to deliver in theory but something we find hard to deliver in practice? Who will find it hard to show up? What barriers do they face? How do we address these barriers? And how do we deliver this practically in our work?
For us as the organisers, these questions were also a continuation of the journey we had been on whilst planning and creating the IETM event. Our aim was to demonstrate the best practice we could in creating an inclusive event whilst also enabling open discussion about what the sector thinks best practice looked like.
A diverse steering group
A huge amount of learning was achieved during the planning and delivery of IETM Hull, particularly for best practice around D/deaf and disabled access to both the day-time plenary programme and the evening creative programme. We understood from an early stage that to be able to effectively create an event that truly included anyone and everyone a diverse cross section of people must be involved in the event planning from the outset. With this in mind an event steering group was formed that included representatives from Unlimited, Arts Council England, the British Council and from a diverse selection of professionals from across the sector. The group played an instrumental role in the consideration, discussion and implementation of access provisions across the entire event helping to challenge, support and champion the messages around which the meeting was centred.
Support from local experts
In addition to the steering group, Hull based access service consultancy company Elephant in the Room were contracted to not only advise but to look at the event from an access perspective at all times in the run up to and during the event. Having this unique perspective on access embedded across the event added an authenticity to what we were providing along with being able to implement accessible provision with expert knowledge and experience.
The access provision offered
Accessibility was prioritised from the start of the planning process and began with us establishing a base level of provision including that all venues must be wheelchair accessible, a minimum of one session or show to be captioned at any one time, and that there should always be at least one BSL interpreter available to delegates should they be needed. In the end, 12 out of the 30 of the day time plenary sessions were speech to text captioned, several were BSL interpreted and every show in the creative programme featured at least one captioned performance or was audio described. In addition to this, two BSL interpreters were available to delegates at all times as was a quiet room in the central Hub space at Hull Truck Theatre for anyone to make use of should they need it.
Learning from this experience, and budgeting for it
The level of access provision available at the event far exceeded what we would have imagined at the onset of planning and this was mostly due to the expertise of the access consultant and steering group members but mostly because we chose to prioritise access as part of the event. We aimed to use best practice and have an abundance of provision available so that, in keeping with the event’s theme, everyone and anyone felt included. Our learnings since IETM Hull 2019 have prompted us to revise our internal access and equality policies and has affected the way we plan access provision into our working practice as an arts company.
Despite the level of access provision provided at IETM being something that we will aim towards for our future events and projects, we recognise that it will be a challenge to always implement this level due to the high costs of access provision. As a company we need to find the balance between creating events that are inclusive for anyone and everyone whilst working within the constraints of an arts budget. We now allocate more towards access in our budgets from the start of a project but to be able to embed access resources from the outset of a project further discussion and guidance is needed on what best practice looks like when considering the costs.
As we found throughout the process, inclusion is a huge topic with lots of facets and much complexity, and there are many more discussions and further learning to be had. The journey we have been on has created a lot of change in how we work as a company and we are proud to be living by Jess Thom’s, Touretteshero, statement from her IETM keynote speech:
“Change isn’t always a battle – it can be joyful, discursive, persuasive and silly. Let’s share the biscuits not the crumbs.”
We are excited to take our learning from IETM, to let it shape our working processes going forward, to be able to share what we learned and to continue to work with the sector to discuss, shape and strive towards best practice.
If you want to apply to attend the next IETM events, or the No Limits disability arts festival in Berlin, find out more about the British Council/Unlimited bursaries for disabled artists and producers.