#Overthewall: accessibility in the performing arts

In this regular feature we look further than our own boundaries for inspiration. What can we learn from the performing arts about accessibility?



Getting around in the physical world is something many of us take for granted. We walk upstairs, squeeze through narrow passageways, step over thresholds, read signs and hear loudspeaker announcements without a second thought. For people with a disability, accessibility is still a problem in every sector, because their needs haven’t been considered at the design stage. How can the literary sector better accommodate audiences and artists with disabilities? And what can we learn from the performing arts sector?


TIME TO ACT: Understanding and breaking barriers in the performing arts


Time to Act (TTO) is a research report commissioned by the British Council and authored by On The Move, a network active in Europe and worldwide that provides information about cultural mobility opportunities with a focus on social and environmental responsibility. Time to Act focuses on dance, drama, theatre and music. It is the first ever transnational study extensively showing that a lack of knowledge in the mainstream cultural sector is a key barrier preventing artists and arts professionals with a disability from participating on equal terms in European culture. The study is part of the large-scale cooperative project Europe Beyond Access, an initiative aimed at supporting artists with disabilities in their efforts to break the glass ceilings of the contemporary theatre and dance sectors.


Where do things go wrong and what can be done?


The key findings in the TTO report have been grouped into three major areas: Knowledge, Experience and Solutions. We will discuss these further in the following sections and see how the report can inspire the literary sector.


Knowledge

Respondents often complained about difficulties in finding information that would help them navigate accessibility issues. They also reported a lack of information on work by disabled artists. Substantial literature on the performing arts and disability is not readily available in most European countries, since the available information is often limited to certain countries or languages.


Experience

The study found that most arts organizations give priority to ensuring access for disabled audiences, with the needs of disabled artists coming second. This may be connected to the prevailing notion that people with disabilities are ‘passive’ recipients of culture, rather than ‘active’ participants. A lack of funding and of inclusive guidelines with an official status is also seen as a major obstacle. Furthermore, perceptions of the improvements made are often more confident than is warranted and contrast with the evidence about actual practices.


Solutions

The Time to Act report makes some suggestions on how the performing arts sector can improve its accessibility.


  • Policy frameworks and support are necessary as key enabling factors. Cultural policies addressing disability and access, and providing a dedicated budget, have been instrumental in enabling progress at the sector level.


  • Disabled people need to be more involved Organizations that involve people with disabilities in their decision-making and have a dedicated staff or budgets for accessibility are generally better placed to make progress in this field.

  • The normative production methods need to be adapted Tight deadlines, small practice spaces and long days don’t work for disabled performers, as they have adverse effects on their wellbeing, often making it impossible for them to accept a performance offer. Active measures need to be taken if they are to thrive in this environment.


  • Making knowledge and practical guidance more easily accessible is critical. This can be done by translating the existing literature into different languages, making it globally accessible, and establishing partnerships with specialized organizations.


  • Other changes that make organizations more accessible and inclusive. These include ensuring physical accessibility, integrating accessibility into the design and presentation of productions (e.g. audio descriptions, touch tours, or tactile model boxes), and ensuring that open calls are published and disseminated in accessible formats.



What can we, in the literary sector, learn from this report?


The findings in the TTO report about the performing arts also apply to the literary field. The idea that disabled people are ‘passive’ recipients of culture, rather than ‘active’ participants seems to be a sector-wide prejudice. Articles about the representation of disabilities in literature are broadly available, but information about disabled authors is hard to find. Venue accessibility at book fairs and literary events is discussed more often, but what measures are taken behind the scenes?


We have to ask ourselves whether we are actively making room for people with disabilities in the literary sector. Are publishers searching for works by disabled people to diversify their output? Is the industry a safe space for writers with disabilities and do the prevailing production methods allow them to showcase their talents to the full? There seems to be a general consensus that this should be the case, but concrete measures are lacking. A lack of extra support, financial or otherwise, within organizations is preventing writers with disabilities from thriving in this environment.


However, there are organizations actively supporting disabled writers that we can look to for inspiration.

  • Open Minnesota Arts initiates artistic activities (such as Poetry Gatherings) for people with disabilities to help them discover their unique creative gifts, develop and practice skills, and share their creations in a supportive environment.

  • Disabled Writers is a resource specifically designed to help editors connect with disabled people working in journalism, or trying to break into the field.

You can find more examples of good practice here.


It’s worth noting that most of these organizations are located in the USA and Australia, while European equivalents are still very rare. Although Europe Beyond Access aims to help disabled artists in Europe, it focuses mostly on the performing arts. We can use these American and Australian initiatives as good examples of how to support disabled writers everywhere.



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