A lush green meadow backed by dark trees. Two white orbs float in the centre of the paddock, a small white tent underneath.
'Between Stillness and Storm,' by Aidan Moesby. Bluedot Festival. Courtesy of the artist.

Reporting on the rural

In February, Unlimited was part of two simultaneous events in two places – The Courthouse in Thirsk, North Yorkshire, and The Engine Room in Bridgwater, Somerset – both looking at art, disability, and rurality. Recently, the organisations involved – Take Art, Somerset Art Works, Somerset Film and Rural Arts  – met up to evaluate how things went.

There are specific issues involved in rural locations: lack of transport, networks, increased isolation, lack of resources and crucially a lack of focus and attention. As we mentioned in our very first blog on this issue, of the £1.6bn which ACE provides to its National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs), less than 3% (£40.1m) goes to rural areas – despite 18% of England’s population living in a rural location. Lots of the specifics were covered in the blog from the South West event but we hadn’t had a chance to look back across both events then, to see what we had learnt through meeting up and planning the events.

In the end, the planning group had swelled to quite a consortium. We formed a strong partnership which led to some “amazing, invaluable learning and fertile ground for the future,” but all also recognised that to work jointly, and to focus on inclusive practices, does take additional capacity (and in some instances there were imbalances and too much became shouldered by some people). The consortium approach meant we had a wide range of networks to draw on, which did lead to the problem of being over subscribed for the day in the South West, but what a great problem to have!

Having Unlimited connected to the project was seen as a benefit and stimulated many great conversations – although there is also a tension. There isn’t a single option or opinion on ‘best practice,’ so we all needed to compromise and negotiate! From Unlimited’s side, it meant we could do more by doing less – we could reach and connect with a much wider range of people and to do so we had to loosen up a bit and put our trust in others.

Overall, this approach really paid dividends. Members felt more confident about what to do in the future having run the events themselves and felt the benefit of having had both advice and financial support in place to respond to access queries. This is certainly an approach we want to take further.

Consult with disabled people

The core key learning was about the need to actually talk to disabled people – listen and consult. It sounds ridiculous writing it down, but so often planning around access occurs without actually involving the very people it’s meant to include. It should be a dialogue, a conversation.

There are dangers there however – the danger of listening to just one person versus understanding the weight of a collected experience; what one person wants can’t be assumed to be what everyone wants. This is particularly true around language. There are many different views around which words to use (see a previous blog we wrote about language).

The other danger is around pushing the emotional labour of access onto disabled people. Access isn’t the responsibility of disabled people, it’s all of our responsibility. Using disabled people for free consultancy isn’t appropriate. Asking people what they want and then doing the work so that they get provided with what they need, that’s what we are talking about here. You do the work, not them. Or pay them to do the work, that’s ok too!

And talking with the people you know is one thing, but not enough. You need to research and reach out, to talk to those you don’t know, those who aren’t yet represented. We all need to have a seat at the table, so looking at where the gaps are and attending to them is also key, over time.

More top tips

We all met up, virtually of course, to discuss what we had learnt. Here are some of our learnings that we wanted to share that weren’t covered in the first blog:

  • Building confidence of staff to remove the fear factor – there is nothing that complex about understanding different access needs and just having a conversation with people about what might work best for them in relation to access. Disabled people themselves are the experts on what they need!
  • Take responsibility beyond your doors and do your local research. One venue assumed they had no parking. Some local investigation found out some parking could be available on a case by case basis just across the road by working with the local council, or accessible taxis could be used to bring people in from local car parks further out.

From running the days themselves, there were loads of practical things we learnt:

  • Don’t rely too heavily on one sense when planning – aim for variety throughout a day
  • Make sure formats are accessible for materials you might usually just get printed; ask people what they want and supply it.
  • Rooms need to be light for discussions
  • Don’t assume one person knows everything. Remember other orgs (e.g. Stagetext) have expertise to share
  • Unlimited’s Cards for Inclusion game worked brilliantly as a way to ‘get’ access in a fun and practical way (some organisations are now running online workshops using the cards)!
  • And simple things such as thinking about where bags and coats go at packed events. If they just get shoved on the floor, they can be hazardous for people using wheelchairs/people with sight impairments and actually, anyone else!
  • Remember to capitalise words in hashtags as then screen readers can pick them up as separate words

One participant commented that it was “really helpful to be in an environment where everyone in the room can negotiate the solutions,” rather than feeling that they were fixed, set or undebatable.

What next?

There are plans brewing to run more events focusing on rurality, and Unlimited is happy to keep the channel open for all allies with questions or queries (Unlimited’s resources can be used by anyone wanting to find out more, or why not join our group of allies?).

There is a need to keep the momentum going, to stay focused so that effort doesn’t dissipate. Access and inclusion are ongoing processes, not a one-off tick box, and we all agreed there was still a long, long way to go. As part of this: our Somerset partners are due to hold another event soon, we are exploring a partnership with Pentabus Rural Touring, still talking with Rural Arts, and more. Even in a pandemic, planning and more can continue!