Access and Inclusion in Creative Industries – It’s About Being CREATIVE

Recently I read an interesting article in The Stage. The article reports about access concerns after the production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Apollo failed to offer Audio Description. The individual matter has now been settled.

Hemley, M. 2012. Setting Sights on Access Issues. The Stage, May 31. Page 5

Before I continue, can I apologise in advance for any excess in sarcasm (language that may cause offense have been replaced by the decisions of a random word generator, just to keep things clean). It just astounds me that in a CREATIVE industry there is so much stigma around disabled audiences.

In an industry that has responded to the recession’s cuts with (a little weep, a bit of a strop and then) the attitude “if any industry can survive this, the creative and Arts industry can!” Coping with disabled audiences is just too much to handle.

I was quite surprised that such a well known London theatre such as The Apollo was criticised for access so I checked out it’s website. To my astonishment there is no designated page for access, all I could find was this hidden at the bottom of the ticket page:

Click to enlarge image

Whilst a “tailored to the individual” service is offered, I sense an undertone of unwelcomeness and exclusion that points a very large finger to insufficient disability awareness. The short message appears to be addressed to the carer/PA rather than the disabled theatre goer, filled with patronisation it could have just said

“If you want to do a good deed and take a disabled person on a little outing, we’ll try and accommodate you.”

Although with the proposed changes to the DLA, independent living for people with disabilities may be a rarity. It might just be that they are ahead of the times.

Perhaps a Deaf club want to arrange an excursion? Well those using hearing aids wishing to gain access a Loop system will have to form an orderly queue as an undefined number are available on a first come first served basis at the box office.

Click to enlarge image.

What The Stage article does very well is highlight the 2010 Equality Act. I was always unsure whether it was the role of the company/producer or venue who shouldered the responsibility. I’m sure we’ve all seen the phrases “reasonable adjustments” and “service provider” countless times. Hemley’s article in interview with VocalEyes executive director Judy Dixey makes it very apparent that the definition of these is as clear as mud. I’ve never been one with the ability to decipher legal jargon but with an Act this vague it begs the question “why bother”. Oh yes, I forgot, boxes need ticking.

It all just seems a case of passing the buck and making excuses and with no real legal cases against theatres to use as a benchmark the Equality Act is, in this case, essentially worthless.

Perhaps arts venues and companies believe there is no need for access. The assumption of “disabled people wouldn’t want to see this so we won’t make it accessible” should NEVER be made. The theatre world is always banging on about reaching a wider, more diverse audience. Why would a blind person go to the theatre? Why would a deaf person go to the opera? Why would an OAP person go to a Nicki Minaj concert? And why would a young person learn to play bowls? Who knows and quite frankly who cares! Yes a target audience is quite essential when creating a show, but ultimately you are creating a show for AN AUDIENCE and you should welcome anyone who buys a ticket. Denying a “category” of people just seems outrageous.

This is where we arrive at “what is a reasonable adjustment?” Well according to theatres and all involved an adjustment is: something that costs a fortune. So as far as they are concerned none are reasonable. If a company/venue is not providing access, they can also argue that due to few or no provisions being used there is no need for them to provide access.

Of course, if you don’t provide access, you won’t get an audience using accessible provisions. This seems obvious but it doesn’t mean people with disabilities don’t want to experience theatre, they just don’t want to experience the hassle and barunduki that goes with it.

That is not the way providing reasonable adjustments should work. I don’t imagine that one day a wheelchair user flung himself down a flight of steps to the cries of “oh pediculati, maybe we should build a ramp before the bodies pile up”. Although, maybe this is exactly what happened. In which case… it’s probably best I leave that there.

Why does access and inclusion have this stigma? we are in a creative industry for scfh sake, be oxylebiusy creative! One company said they use understudies to audio describe. Fantastic! What a start! Hopefully they can progress to getting some AD training and collect feedback from audiences to progress their access. Where’s the huge cost in that?

If anyone has had a go at audio describing, you’ll know it’s not the easiest thing to do. I did a performance a couple of months ago where I had to audio describe 3 signs. It took me a while to grasp, and I tried it out on some kind visually impaired volunteers to test my accuracy. So throwing an unprepared actor into the role, no matter how well s/he knows the show is not ideal. I once went to a performance with really terrible live audio description that was full of “umms” and “errs” it was so uncomfortable, let alone confusing to listen to.

However, an actor will presumably have good voice skills to provide clear communication, they also know the show well. In addition they could sit with the audience in costume. (closing your eyes does not give an accurate experience of visual impairment, people!)

In conclusion, actors providing audio description: Pros, cons, contradictions but the start of a great idea.

In terms of cost, Dixey states in The Stage that their service will cost the producer around £1,200 which includes a touch tour, AD and a CD featuring programme notes and cast information and this should be in the budget from the start and not an optional extra.

In my opinion, what needs to change is the attitude. At the moment everyone seems to fear disabled people as they bring trouble, cost and doom. What needs to be appreciated is that they are a paying audience member attending for the theatre experience. Once companies and venues get over this I believe more will be done to create an inclusive experience, as essentially that is what theatre is. It’s not just about the show, there is so much more. A touch tour doesn’t need to require a person guiding a visually impaired person around the stage whilst the cast are trying to do their warm up. Scraps of materials left over from costume and set making can be provided in the foyer or at the box office to give a visually impaired person an idea of materials. Costly? I don’t think so.

Well, there we have it; anger, sarcasm, frustration and ramblings. However, I still have hope for those working in creative industries that are still ignorant to access/inclusion. It’s just about… well… being creative.

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