Heritage & Culture

Live Culture: disability and the arts

Jumped Up Theatre’s Kate Hall on disability and the arts

A career in the arts can be glamorous and exciting, sometimes. It can also involve hours of furniture shifting and washing up. The desire to build new audiences means that the Jumped Up’s tiny team can often be found creating events from scratch outdoors or in community centres, spending long days lugging heavy kit from one place to another, and back again. You can’t do that in sequins and high-heels – well, not easily. But it is true that every day is different, and we are always learning. Whether it’s dealing with budgets, licensing, or how to clean liquid chalk off blackboards, creating new events means that you are always questioning how and why you are doing these things.

Sometimes we are learning to save on the perspiration (top-tip: repainting our blackboards is more efficient than trying to clean them). Saving time and energy allows us to focus on the inspirational and difficult, and these are the best learning curves to be on. The challenge of making the arts and culture accessible for people with disabilities is an area we are trying to get better at. This is also one of my passions. It comes from a professional desire to create new audiences and from personal experience of seeing disabling obstacles put in the way of friends and family. When producing the Platform8 Festivals our positive attitude to access begins with choosing spaces that are accessible for wheelchairs, booking BSL interpretation and identifying shows that can reach children with Special Educational Needs. We have used funding from Arts Council England, the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and the Garfield Weston Foundation to make these changes over the past three years.

And quite right too. The Arts Council funding, for instance, is from the National Lottery (thank you to everyone who plays!) and its purpose is to reach those who otherwise couldn’t access the arts – creating a more inclusive and representative society, and opening up the experiences that the rest of us might take for granted. But it’s not all about money. Some changes to improve accessibility are low-cost, including adopting an active attitude to accessibility, something everyone can do. For instance, organisations often fail to provide clear and accurate information about access facilities. Or they bury this vital information on an obscure page on their website. This drives disability experts crazy.

The first time I met Jo Verrent, Senior Producer at Unlimited, the UK’s lead arts organisation for access and equality for people with disabilities, she berated a room of senior arts managers to stop asking her about lifts and loop systems and start by making access information more obvious on their websites. Chastened, I made sure I updated my website. Making your access page very visible is common sense. For starters, if your expectation and experience, as a disabled person, is that arts venues and arts organisations don’t universally cater for your needs (which they probably don’t) and you can’t see that information front and centre on a website, it’s logical to assume that disabled access isn’t a priority. But it makes business sense, as well as being a moral imperative, to take a more proactive stance. Scope UK estimates that the total spending power of families with at least one disabled person is approximately £249 billion a year. 80% of the 13.9 million disabled people in the UK have acquired their disability during their lifetime, often through old age but also through illness and accident. Ignore this huge audience at your peril – and it could include you and your family at some point.

It is also a legal requirement to make ‘reasonable adjustment’ for people with disabilities. A quick scan of the internet suggests that local organisations are beginning to recognise their responsibilities. The Cathedral has an easy-to-find access information on its website. Vivacity recently launched a new page with a simple and concise chart about accessibility at its sports sites, which is a great template to follow. It is also great to see that Goldhay Arts is still providing extensive and growing services to people with learning difficulties. It is heartening that this vital service is surviving in the current funding climate. Members of Goldhay Arts can access arts and crafts, dance, music and drama – all invaluable opportunities to reduce social isolation and for ongoing development of life skills. I was also at the Millennium Centre recently and it was packed with a volunteer-run social and crafts group for adults with learning difficulties. These programmes lack visibility and recognition; it’s amazing how they survive.

Targeted programmes – visible or not – and financial interventions, such as lifts and providing BSL interpretations, and low-cost steps such as access policies and web-pages will only take you so far. Where are the champions for disabled access to arts and culture? In my experience partnerships with organisations led by dedicated teams of people is where change really happens. Peterborough’s d/Deaf community is well-served by Peterborough and District Deaf Children’s Society (PDDCS), led by Amy Casselden as Chair, and Cambridgeshire Deaf Association (CDA) led by Managing Director, Andy Palmer. With their support I have programmed lots of BSL interpreted shows in the Platform8 Festivals, including three shows this May. They are also enthusiastic about being more ambitious.

PDDCS and I want to create access to youth theatre for deaf children – we have found a tutor and a host venue at The Key. The next step is to find longer-term funding, and then the dates and times which suit families, which is not proving easy! The team at CDA have challenged me to programme work where Deaf culture is central and accessible for both hearing and d/Deaf audiences. So, on Friday 17 May, in partnership with The Key Theatre, Talia Randall is bringing her theatrical and visual What Words Are Ours? to the city, where BSL interpretation and live captioning create access for both hearing and deaf audiences and artists. This lively show will include two exceptional deaf performers, Visual Vernacular poet, Zoe McWhinney and Raymond Antrobus, who has just been awarded the Ted Hughes prize for poetry. Innovation and excellence characterise this spoken word night. It’s less a traditional poetry event, more a raucous cabaret which uses language and accessibility to tread new ground and create a great night out. I think it’s going to be wild.

Amplifying the voice and visibility of disabled artists and audiences is also a passion of Kate Marsh, a dancer and choregrapher, based at Metal in Peterborough, where she has been changing the organisation from the inside-out. Kate has been funded for the last two years to be a Change Maker, exploring and challenging how arts organisations and artists can rethink what it means to be inclusive, and not just bolt-on access as a lastminute, panicked after-thought. As a disabled artist Kate’s understanding of access and disability is different to mine, as an able-bodied person, despite my good intentions and best efforts (which I acknowledge always need to go further.). Having disabled artists like Kate in leadership positions is what will make the difference in the long-run.

So what next? I don’t know! I am ablebodied and have only worked with d/Deaf audiences and Kate Marsh. I am only scratching the surface of issues facing disabled artists and audiences. So, inspired by Kate, and supported by Cambridgeshire Deaf Association, we are launching a survey for people with disabilities to capture their experience of access to the arts in Peterborough. It will be on the Jumped Up Theatre and CDA website throughout May, and we hope other disability organisations will get on board. And we will share our findings across the city, framing what needs to change, and celebrating what’s working. Maybe you are disabled, or have a family member or a friend that is? Please fill this survey in, and let’s start an ambitious conversation. It’s about creating, as Kate Marsh would say, a dedicated, priority space, both physically and in our thinking, for people who are disabled, designed by people who are disabled and supported by ablebodied allies. Art and culture are invaluable as a place to communally explore other people’s experiences and viewpoints, and we all need to step-up in sharing that space.

To take part in the Peterborough Arts and Theatre Accessibility Survey, visit: jumpeduptheatre.com

Image: from the film Resilience, by Kate Marsh

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