A varied group of people are sat on chairs in a circle, in an outdoor, lush and leafy space, perhaps a park or a garden. Dappled sunlight falls upon them through the surrounding trees. There are about 15 of them, some writing in notebooks whilst the others appear to be talking.
Photo by Jo Verrent of a previous Unlimited event.

Wanted: Access Everywhere– Disability and Rurality

This February, Unlimited ran two simultaneous action days in two places – The Courthouse in Thirsk, North Yorkshire, and The Engine Room in Bridgwater, Somerset – that potentially present problems for disabled artists and disabled people trying to experience art. Alistair Gentry reports from the Somerset event.

With a good mixture of production, venue and funder representatives and disabled artists themselves, there was a strong feeling in the room of a positive need and desire to learn and do better from the beginning. There were so many constructive, helpful comments flying around that it almost seems unfair to single one out. Even so, it was really good to hear how useful people found it – particularly disabled people –  to be in a room together to negotiate solutions based on the real experiences of specific individuals, rather than it being a discussion about “them” without “them” being in the room. This event was also at capacity and waiting-list only, which points to an appetite for information and sharing on this subject in places like Somerset and the South West of England, where Unlimited’s research has already shown there is less impact from funders and arts organisations than in other regions.

After recorded contributions from artists DJ and Kristina Veasey, a really honest, compelling talk in person from Jonny Cotsen whose show Louder is Not Always Clearer is currently on tour including rural venues, and a few rounds of Unlimited’s Cards for Inclusion game, everyone got down to finding and sharing some pragmatic answers to common problems, which can be exacerbated in rural venues. Many of these have additional barriers compared to their town and city counterparts, sometimes being physically separated from other buildings or roads, inside protected historic structures, or in areas of general infrastructural or financial deprivation. There can also be attitudinal barriers: “There aren’t any disabled people around here anyway,” or “Our audiences aren’t interested in work by disabled artists,” for example.

These attitude barriers were discussed as much as the physical ones, but like the practical ones, with a bit of thought and empathy, redressing them can also be relatively simple. Even well-meaning venues and building-based arts organisations sometimes have a long way to go in terms of simple things like all-staff awareness of and training around disability that covers everyone including programmers, directors, and front of house staff or volunteers. There can also be low- or no- cost solutions that are all about reframing and adjusting attitudes. By foregrounding himself as a deaf artist in the publicity for his work, Jonny (currently commissioned by Unlimited for Hearing Hearing Aids) thought that the overwhelming majority of his deaf audiences had been so intimidated by theatre spaces that they’d never set foot in one or been to a live performance before choosing to attend his. This also neatly refutes the two previously mentioned objections in one go…

We also discussed solid, pragmatic, real-world things that most people could do tomorrow. A non-comprehensive list:

  • Accessibility isn’t just for when people are in, but also when they’re getting in! Where are people putting their coats and bags? Spoiler alert: preferably not on the floor where they can be a hazard for people with a wide range of disabilities from crutch and wheelchair users to visually impaired people. Can everyone drink the coffee you’re providing? In order to navigate the room, to lip read or see their signer, to read labels or paperwork, some people need a certain light level which may be darker or lighter than some other people are used to.
  • If people are looking at a screen and it has subtitles, can anyone sitting or standing behind them see those subtitles? Perhaps try surtitles; at the top of the frame rather than the bottom as is more usual. And if there is speech to text software or a palantypist, could this be visible to everyone and not only to pre-identified deaf people?
  • Contemporary museums and art galleries are often quite dark for very good conservation reasons. But perhaps in the same way that a live venue might advertise relaxed performances, a museum could advertise a relaxed lighting hour with all the lights on so visually impaired people can see the exhibits properly for a change…
  • You can’t account for every individual’s specific disability and experience, but you can think about the disabilities that your audience may have, and you can make sure that you are not privileging one sense or mode of being over another, or ignoring certain types of sensory or bodily ways of being.
  • Describe your venue’s access and policy upfront on the flyer, on your website and wherever else people might need it. This is a good and comprehensive statement suggested by a participant.

Try not to make people ask you basic questions about access, but you can also be explicit that you welcome disabled people and that they can contact you about their access needs. Offering a visit to the venue in advance if they’ve never been before is one example of the help you can offer that also makes things easier for you. This also means that public-facing staff need to be as helpful, knowledgeable and approachable to disabled people as possible.

  • Especially regarding the ever-present issue of whether increasing access for people with invisible disabilities counts as progress (the consensus was that it definitely counts), we could perhaps think more about whether the whole experience was accessible, pleasurable, and makes them want to return, rather than fixating on identifying them.

I think everyone finished the day we’d spent together with a genuine feeling of hope and positivity about doing more and doing better for everyone, especially disabled artists and audiences.