The Future of Access: Disability and the Arts

Lockdown afforded one unexpected benefit, allowing disabled people at home access to the arts that previously did not exist. As we return to live presentation, we ask some of Scotland's arts institutions how they will continue to work to broaden access

Feature by Jessica Secmezsoy-Urquhart | 14 Jul 2021
  • Access in the Arts

This is the penultimate part of our series platforming emergent writers, produced in partnership with Edinburgh International Festival

It was in April during my talk appearance at the Glasgow Zine Festival that the changing nature of disabled access to theatre, the arts, entertainment and festivals hit home. My mother was in the audience. I was not in the same room as her or any of the people watching my talk. It and the whole festival were virtual this year and delivered via Zoom. I was sitting in my room on Zoom while my mother – who has rare autoimmune conditions like Behçet and Dercums, and uses a wheelchair – sat in bed watching it alongside everyone else present in the call. As someone autistic, with anxiety, I felt less nervous and more confident doing the talk in my own space than in a public room I was unaccustomed to.

Afterwards, my mum noted that if the event had been an in-person one then it was very likely she would have been unable to attend. From doctor appointments to concerts, my mother’s ill-health and lack of mobility often make her miss things even when she has intended to go. Past in-person performances or events I’ve been part of have often been missed due to her conditions and the sudden flare-ups of her symptoms. My mother’s words drove home to me how increased digital access to the arts and entertainment has improved the lives of many disabled people, including her and me.

This pandemic, COVID-19, has on the whole impacted disabled people negatively and impacted disabled people more than other groups. It is we, young and old, who are described as having died of COVID due to pre-existing conditions. It is we who were pressured earlier in the pandemic to sign do not resuscitate orders by an overwhelmed NHS; it is we who were forgotten in care homes when the scandal surrounding COVID’s spread in care came out; it is we who (often already isolated at home) have had to shield away for over a year; it is we who have had appointments to operations we need cancelled (sometimes resulting in our deaths) and it is we whom the parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee has called for an inquiry on behalf of, as the pandemic has led to ‘profoundly unequal adverse effects’ on our lives.

If you have ever wanted proof of the social theory of disability – the idea that someone is disabled by societal oppression, not their condition on its own – then the last year shows it. In the past, when disabled people wanted to work remotely, have access to online streams or virtual performances of entertainment, and gain any other number of forms of access, we were ignored or told it could not be done as we were a group in the minority. Come the pandemic, with everyone required to stay at home due to lockdown in 2020, the fact a majority of people needed the same things suddenly made all this access incredibly easy to provide.

Despite how galling this rapid change to meet able-bodied, neurotypical people’s needs has felt for the disabled community whose attempts to gain this access had been ignored, we have benefited from it. One of these benefits has been the fact public demand has made entertainment more accessible to disabled people in their own homes.

In-person access to cinemas, theatres, art galleries, festivals and concerts has often been lacking for disabled people in Scotland, although progress has been made slowly in the last decade. Improvements range from the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow having BSL, subtitles and physical accessibility at the centre of their exhibitions, to hosted film festivals or the National Theatre of Scotland having sign language incorporated into shows, to the growing presence of subtitled, audio description and autism-friendly ‘relaxed’ film screenings offered by the likes of Glasgow Film Theatre and Dundee Contemporary Arts. Simple things like difficulty reading lips, being forbidden to leave a performance space briefly due to a condition like Crohn's acting up, uncomfortable chairs which disabled audience members can’t use, or sensory overload for autistic audience members can make in-person events difficult for disabled people to enjoy or even attend.

The pandemic made commitment to online access essential for organisations in the arts and entertainment industries to survive this past year and as a result disabled audience members benefited. Overnight, it felt like the disabled community had the access to concerts, films, festivals and plays we had been fighting for. Many of these accessible online events and performances – due to the nature of Zoom and digital streaming platforms – have been able to incorporate accessibility further via captions, sign language and audio description. Disabled people over this last year, during which many of us felt trapped in our homes and at risk, could attend a play or multiple plays by the National Theatre from the past or present via the NT at Home platform by subscribing or paying for a particular show we were interested in.

During COVID, films have been released via streaming platforms and via VOD, and arts festivals have pivoted online, enabling disabled people and performers to ‘attend’ screenings and festivals across the world they might have been unable to if events were in-person. As art galleries, theatres, festivals, cinemas and more open physically to the public again many disabled people are asking ourselves a fundamental question: will the life-changing digital access we’ve finally won after so long remain after all lockdown restrictions are eased? When the public as a whole does not need it to engage with performances and entertainment, will these innovations be put aside, and will COVID impact in-person accessibility going forward?

These and other questions posed by disabled people including myself were put to different organisations in Scotland such as the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS), Alchemy Film & Arts and Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA). These are organisations of varying size delivering performances and events in theatre, the arts, cinema and entertainment. Their answers can suggest whether the impact of the pandemic will lead to a more accessible world of entertainment and performances in future or if this has been a brief moment of accessibility that will now go.

Engagement and online access

First, I asked them all whether showing or performing their films, plays or events virtually has enabled wider engagement with disabled and non-disabled audiences both locally and internationally and whether, with live performances and events possible again, they would now commit to continuing the access online which many disabled people are worried will disappear. All agreed on the need to make access online and in-person a priority going forward and discussed how their viewership and audience has changed over the last year-and-a-half.

For the Edinburgh International Festival, looking forward to their August 2021 presentation, Community Engagement and Access Officer Calum McDonald is optimistic. “Our digital programme will hopefully be a way we can show the breadth of talent at the Festival to a wider audience," he says, "and making that programme as accessible as possible will be part of that. However, while the digital dissemination of streamed arts means audiences can discover the content more easily, online availability is not a replacement for making live events accessible. Our live events and our digital events should both be built to minimise and remove any barriers to engagement – and that will be a particular focus for us as we move into this hybrid model.”

The National Theatre of Scotland, who have been at the forefront of in-person access in Scotland, are represented by Director of Artistic Development Caroline Newall. She says: “We are committed to theatre as a live artform and the joy of bringing audiences together in shared space. We acknowledge that this can’t be replicated by digital presentations. However, we also highly value the opportunity to reach new audiences through sharing work on digital and broadcast platforms.” She reassures me: “I imagine that this form of creating and sharing work will definitely continue alongside a return to live performance.”

While disabled people who have enjoyed the online works shown by the likes of NTS are worried about digital access disappearing, Newall flags the logistical challenges this entails. “While opening our work to a more diverse and widespread audience in this year of digital presentation has been a great opportunity, this is something we continue to discuss and will most likely have to make decisions about on a project-by-project basis, as our work varies massively in scale and form.”

Likewise, Newall brings up the important point that while digital access can remove many barriers for disabled people, “it can be a difficult medium to make fully accessible. For example, our priority for BSL users is the artistic embedding of interpretation into live stage action, reducing the split focus for BSL users watching interpreters positioned to the side of the action. This is exceptionally hard to achieve in filmed work, whether live-streamed or pre-recorded.”

An illustration of a woman watching theatre on a laptop. Two tiny actors perform a scene next to the woman, who is watching the laptop through binoculars while wearing a pair of headphones.

Alchemy Film & Arts deliver their programme in Hawick in the Borders. “We're in the process of curating a new online programme of screenings and discussion events, so that we can continue to reach audiences who are not able or inclined to travel long (or even short) distances to access our events,” says co-director Michael Pattison. “This of course also widens the pool of which artists we can work with, and which curators, because the programme is no longer rooted to a physical geography.”

Being a smaller fish in the industry does not necessarily mean providing poorer access, Pattison argues. “I think that in general, historically, it was already the smaller organisations that were innovating the link between access, curation and community," he says. "Organisations of relatively modest means such as Scottish Queer International Film Festival or Glasgow Women's Library or Dardishi Festival – and there are many, many others – were actively and meaningfully investing in access before more famous institutions recognised a need for it.”

Pattison continues: “Such organisations will never be fully or justly recognised for their work, because the same system that prioritises urban-centric models of growth is also the same system that generates disparities in exposure and marketing coverage.”

Dundee Contemporary Arts’ Director Beth Bate tells me: “We were quite swift to move into the [online] space, as our audiences were demanding it. We felt we could best continue to meet our commitment to public benefit, to artists and to audiences, by moving our work online and the popularity of our online work supported this move.” Like Alchemy, they are “committed to maintaining a vibrant online programme, be it our film streaming platform DCA at Home, our exhibitions talks and reading groups, or our digital learning activity, and are aware of how helpful people have found these when they are not able to get to the DCA building, due to issues with physical access, timing, geography or caring responsibilities. We have seen people from all over the world engage with our events and online work, we want to ensure this continues,” Bate explains.

In-person accessibility

With many organisations stating in-person events cannot be replaced and restrictions currently being scaled back, I ask about their commitment to in-person physical accessibility, how they’ve approached it in the past and whether access has been part of their plans for reopening (with funding to ensure it). Calum McDonald, working to deliver EIF’s in-person experiences in Edinburgh this August, concedes: “The physical make-up of Edinburgh does present unique accessibility challenges, but I see this as an opportunity to innovate, and problem-solve. I think that the city can grow to be truly accessible if the experience of disabled people is centred and platformed in decision-making processes.”

The inaccessibility of Edinburgh’s festivals, sometimes just due to the city’s nature but other times due to the buildings chosen and the actions of festivals themselves, has been a big issue for the disabled community for years and is why projects like Euan’s Guide (a guide to accessible places in Scotland) came into being. McDonald hopes the actions of organisations like EIF will result in “a sea-change in how people and organisations approach the issue.”

All of EIF’s plans for 2021 attempt to ensure their programme is as accessible as possible before social distancing is fully relaxed. “Any staged performance will have access provisions – this mainly means that all fully-staged theatre will have BSL interpretation, audio description and captioning. When we have a limited staging, such as our rehearsed readings, these will have BSL interpretation and captioning,” McDonald tells me. The physical location for 2021’s events has been created specifically for the reimagined festival, consisting of three outdoor stages which are physically accessible with two including ramped access. Accessible toilets, flat surfaces and social distance bubbles have been created to keep all audience members safe.

Yet there is one area of access they can’t incorporate in 2021, as McDonald explains. “Touch Tours are something we usually offer as part of our Audio Described theatre tickets, where audience members who are blind or partially sighted can visit the stage before a show to get a sense of the physicality of the set and interact with the props which will be referenced in the audio description. We are not allowed to lead groups backstage this year and touching props and sharing them around people will not be able to happen within our current COVID restrictions.” They will offer a pre-show audio description in its place.

In the time institutions have been shut for in-person events, “we have all been adapting our buildings and programmes to make them safely accessible for as many people as possible, in a way that was hitherto unimaginable,” says DCA’s Beth Bate. She points out the inherent hypocrisy in this swift turnaround. “If an institution now said, ‘Don’t visit us if you are in a vulnerable health group, we can’t afford to keep our building as clean as you need,’ there would be understandable uproar. Yet the costs and effort involved in making some public places fully accessible have been used as reasons – as excuses – not to do so for years. Now we all have shared access needs but there are still huge inequalities in how these are met. Let’s take some of the listening and learning from the last 12 months, and make sure we are welcoming to everyone.”

DCA continue to work to make their space as accessible as possible. Bate says: “We have budget for helping meet our audience's access needs, whether that's captioning at online events or the introduction of Braille and audio guides in our gallery spaces. We aim to give a good guide to visiting the organisation in person on our website, with information on nearby disabled parking, lift access, toilet provision, and what to expect from each part of the building. We fully accept we are a learning organisation and are responding to requests and demands, and also are in consultation with members of the disabled community to ensure we are able to hear and act upon what is needed.”

An illustration depicting an art gallery scene. There is a large installation in the centre of the space decorated with the phrase 'Come On In', with a cutout entrance in the shape of an upright, able-bodied person. A person in a wheelchair is sat in front of the installation, unable to get through to the exhibition; behind the wall, three people look at an artwork hanging from the ceiling

The NTS’s Caroline Newall likewise tells me: “We now consider access provision at the very start of the development and commissioning of every project, bringing in access specialists to R&D workshops to ensure we are thinking as creatively as possible about how our work includes, represents and caters to disabled people.” She continues: “Once a project has been greenlit for production, a detailed access budget will be drawn up that allows for necessary fees, expenses, technical equipment, venue modification, marketing etc and access workers are welcomed into rehearsals from the start of each process to ensure that we are considering access needs at every stage.” As in-person events return this process of ongoing access awareness will continue to be crucial to them.

“One of the sayings we've become fond of at Alchemy is that if a door is wide enough for a wheelchair it is wide enough for everyone,” Michael Pattison says. “This metaphor has become central and applicable to much of our thinking, where curation and production, where programming and governance, are part of the same conversation. We're investing in access to the point that, in order to properly fund it, and in order to make it a meaningful and sustainable part of our own workflow, we're willing to screen and programme less in order to screen and programme better.”

With in-person performances coming back Pattison notes “rural isolation is a key challenge for our communities, and should be understood within the broader context of infrastructural abandonment, a result in itself of capitalism's profit motive. Hawick and much of the Borders has been without a train station for more than 50 years, when the Waverley line connecting Edinburgh to Carlisle was decommissioned. It's not difficult to trace Hawick's deindustrialisation, its economic decline, the rising average age of its population and more to the removal of such infrastructure.”

Pattison makes the case that access is not just a disabled issue but a class, race and environmental issue. As an organisation trying to “deinstitutionalise the art experience” and who have used disused spaces (often mills) for unique performances to facilitate this, they have recognised the needs to find places that are able to exhibit moving image work in new and interesting ways but also include disabled members of the public. “We've found ourselves increasingly unwilling to deploy them because of access issues for both the public as well as our staff and volunteers,” he explains.

Talking to disabled artists and practitioners

Disability access also means making working within industries like theatre and art as accessible as possible and making works focused on disabled subjects. I ask on behalf of a respected disabled member of the theatre industry whether the organisations are ‘active allies of the disabled community’ who are talking to disabled practitioners in a way they had not previously, and commissioning and programming disabled-led works with policy commitments made to disabled artists, crew, staff and audiences.

EIF’s McDonald notes that in working with disabled creators, staff and crew, “we try to normalise thinking access in every interaction we have, across artists, crew, staff and audiences." He continues: "It’s a journey we are all on and I hope that it helps shift the conversation from access being an add-on, to accessibility being part of the fabric in all aspects of working, living and enjoying the arts in Scotland.” Internally, the International Festival are encouraging the development of events accessible from inception but acknowledge “as with all things in access, this is a continual process of improvement and evaluation, where we hope to improve year on year.”

As the leading theatre in Scotland, the National Theatre of Scotland emphasises to me that disabled people are one of their six priority groups, across board, staff, artists and audiences. NTS add that they are setting new targets for the final two years of their current five-year strategic plan to include such groups. This has seen them create disabled artist-led works such as My Left / Right Foot by Robert Softley Gale and Thank You Very Much by Claire Cunningham.

Alchemy tell me of how they make the production of projects by disabled practitioners and groups as easy and accessible for those artists as possible. “We work closely with the practitioner or community group to ascertain timelines, workflows and communication methods that allow for effective and meaningful exchange,” says Pattison. “We have committed to partnering specialist captioning services for both films and live events, as well as audio description services, and will generate text-only versions of our programmes. We are no longer screening online content without captions – and if that means that we need to be slower in making a recorded event permanently available afterwards, then it means we need to be slower in making a recorded event permanently available afterwards.”

Finally, I ask what the future of access for disabled people and audiences in general looks like, as we stand on the border between entertainment during- and post-COVID. For the National Theatre of Scotland, the future of access is “being able to directly ask and respond to collective or individualised access needs,” Newall tells me.

“That is much easier when working with a staff member or artist and much harder when thinking about audiences en masse, but we have found that building relationships with specialised organisations (such as Solar Bear, Birds of Paradise and the National Autistic Society Scotland) and regular disabled audience members has given us invaluable opportunities to listen and learn. It is about making access provision visual to everyone, to normalise disability and diversity.”

Alchemy’s Michael Pattison tells me: “I'm not sure whether the future of the arts can be considered or predicted as something that is separate from or independent of broader social, cultural and political currents.” He continues: “Due to the ways in which mega-corporations such as Disney and Netflix have begun to shape and monopolise consumption standards, arts organisations now find themselves wanting to retain an exhibition model based on finite viewing windows while audiences are expecting, more and more, an 'everything all of the time and all at once' kind of cultural provision.” This type of universal and industrialised access can only favour companies able to hire monumental numbers of staff, not the arts organisations across Scotland’s cities and towns.

Pattison reflects on the fact that what will result is smaller organisations having “a difficult trade-off between doing less, so that access can be done better, and focusing on specific elements of the programme that are more accessible than other elements.”

EIF's Calum McDonald says: “The future of access at the International Festival is one where we embed the mantra ‘nothing for us, or about us, without us.’ We want to create more spaces for disabled people to input when we build accessible performances as part of our process.

“Festivals should be for everyone, each performance should be accessible to each and every person who wishes to attend,” he says. Part of that is ensuring more spaces for disabled people to offer feedback. Deconstructing barriers for audiences with learning disabilities is especially important to the organisation and they hope, by partnering with Edinburgh’s first youth theatre group for young adults with learning disabilities, they can increase disabled employability in the arts at this 2021 festival and beyond.

While we cannot predict yet how different the theatre industry, film festivals, art exhibitions and more will be one, five or ten years from now, for Scottish disabled audiences and artists like myself it is comforting to know that our needs and access are no longer an afterthought but a central force in the decision-making and plans of Scottish organisations large and small. The future is accessible indeed.