Source: Photocall Ireland
AS WE SETTLED into our seats at the launch of Arts and Disability Ireland‘s latest strategy report last Thursday, a short announcement was made: there would be a person signing throughout the proceedings, captioning would be provided on-screen, and the Project Arts Centre’s hearing loop system was turned on.
The announcement took less than a minute, but its impact was huge: it meant that people present who had hearing aids, needed a sign interpreter or required captioning would all be catered for.
In the front row, ample space was provided for wheelchair users and those with mobility requirements, and there were two microphones – one for a person standing and another for a person who would be seated.
It was a perfect example of how making facilities and events accessible to people, regardless of their level of ability or disability, can be seamless. The point was hit home even more forcefully as ADI director Padraig Naughton outlined the details of the strategy, which highlighted what it will be doing to break down the barriers to people with disabilities accessing arts and culture in Ireland.
Barriers to going out
Much of ADI’s work is inspired by research it carried out into the experience of audience members with disabilities. It found that 94% of respondents said they had attended at least one artform more often five years ago.
Louise Bruton is an avid gig-goer, journalist and activist, who runs the Legless in Dublin website, which reviews locations based on their accessibility to wheelchair users like her. “If the right facilities are provided for us, we will have no hesitancy in partaking – we just need to know that the want is there and the facilities will fall into place,” she told TheJournal.ie.
But she hasn’t seen enough change to indicate that venues feel that audience members with disabilities are a welcome part of their overall audience.
“As a wheelchair user, so many of the wheelchair bathrooms won’t have sanitary bins, they won’t have soap, they won’t have mirrors, they barely have a working lock. So that’s degrading,” she said.
“My speciality would be more in music venues rather than theatre spaces, [but] I’m going to the same venues with the same complaints where, say, if they have a wheelchair bathroom it’s behind lock and key, or it’s completely unsanitary.
Or say the disabled viewing platforms, they just don’t take into consideration that people in wheelchairs are actually at a lower level, so if someone stands on that platform in front of you, that’s your viewing ruined – that’s a €100 ticket wasted.
And it’s more than that, it’s not just about money – that kind of thing knocks your confidence, it can make you feel small. And those things add up over time and I can see why people would drop off from taking in the arts if they have this poor treatment that jilts their experience.
She said that there can be a feeling “that when a lot of venues do one thing for access, they think ‘that’s it’, it’s a box ticked and they don’t upgrade or move along with the times”.
Building regulations can prevent some locations from making major changes, but Bruton said she feels “a lot of the time that is a line that they can hide behind”.
“But there are ways and means. I just think there can sometimes be ramshackle facilities put in, which can be more damaging than nothing at all,” she said.
“If you’re saying OK we can throw somebody into a corner here – that’s not good enough. Knowing where the person is isn’t good enough, because people might feel overwhelmed by crowds,” she pointed out. “People might need to be able to make a quick exit and if that means they have to wade through crowds, especially at concerts, wade through crowds where people have been drinking or people are getting into it, that can feel more challenging than it should be.”
Bruton points out that in other countries there are organisations like Attitude is Everything, who work with venues and festivals on providing arts experiences that are open to all.
“The casual social experience needs to apply to everybody and that’s not what we’re getting due to the effort that needs to be put in,” she said.
If you plan something and something goes wrong that feels awful, but if you over-plan something that takes its toll on your brain a bit.
“This [ADI] survey shows we need to do more than think about access as thinking about a wheelchair ramp. People need to think about what access really means, and how poor access can affect someone’s mental health.”
Performers and audiences
ADI isn’t just for audience members – it’s for performers too. It wants to ensure that barriers for people are “dismantled, so that people with disabilities living in Ireland can experience the arts without hindrance of any kind”.
Some of its work between 2011 and 2016 included bringing audio description and captioning for eight national performing arts and visual arts tours, the launch of a monthly programme of audio described and open captioned cultural cinema at the Irish Film Institute earlier this year, launching the funding scheme Arts and Disability Connect, creating a partnership with Fire Station Artists’ Studios in Dublin and presenting internationally acclaimed arts and disability work in Ireland.
It has its challenges, as laid out in its strategy – like “trying to serve the needs of a growing but increasingly fragmented population of people with disabilities”.
Its vision and mission are clear: the ADI believes in partnership and collaboration, influencing and engaging, and supporting people to do their jobs more inclusively.
Artists: We aim to ensure that artists with disabilities experience no barriers in making art, and that their quality work is seen and appreciated in Ireland and internationally.
Audiences: We aim to ensure that audiences enjoy seamless, holistic person-centred experiences.
Arts and cultural environment: We aim to ensure that disability inclusion becomes a natural part of the practice of arts influencers and arts workers.
Chair of ADI Niamh Ni Chonchubhair said that barriers faced at cultural events also exist in everyday life “and it’s something we’re not talking enough about”.
“But equally why are the people we are seeing on our stages, our screens, gigging on our street corner, why don’t they look like the people who surround us in our communities?” she asked.
“And I don’t mean say just ‘look’, actually, because only one third of disabilities are visible. There are so many people out there with access requirements, and it is absolutely all of our responsibility to open those doors out wider, to be more inclusive.”
“And not because we should and not because we’re ticking a box, but actually that’s who we are.”
Padraig Naughton, director of ADI said that people with disabilities shouldn’t have to participate in creating art to be able to access art.
“It does bug me sometimes that the only way historically for people with disabilities into the arts was through participation. When in fact the option to go out and just enjoy yourself [wasn't as available],” he said.
“I have become a very strong advocate for audiences with disabilities because I think there are so many people out there with disabilities who want to go out and enjoy things, who want to go out with their families. They want to go out with their friends and actually those opportunities are equally important to the creation of the work.”
Artists, too, need and want to see the latest work by Druid, or what’s on in the Abbey or Project Arts Centre, he pointed out.
“Those are really important things and that is why for me making art in performance and in visual art and in all art forms available to audiences with disabilities is really important.”
He cautioned, too, against venues just providing one-off initiatives, when they could be thinking more longterm. “I think what people think is that you can do an initiative but actually what you really need to do is do it all the time. I know it costs money and that’s one of the reasons why we’re talking about access partnerships.”
Their first partnership this year is with the Project Arts Centre, but Naughton hopes that ADI will be able to link different venues together in the city to create a programme of a number of accessible events in the capital every month.
“That would be a huge breakthrough for audiences with disabilities,” he said, mentioning the need for peer-to-peer support for venues.
A number of venues already provide a number of audio-described or captioned events, such as the Abbey and Bord Gais Theatre.
“My hope is we can build a shared programme in the city, and we can do the same thing in Galway, and over time we can roll that out,” said Naughton.
But if venues persist in seeing people with disabilities as being a different or ‘other audience’, things will be slow to change. “So many venues still see an audience with a disability as being ADI’s audience, somebody else’s audience, not their audience. And actually that is so important, that mindshift,” said Naughton.
“Because if they saw that audience as their audience, then it would be about giving them a good experience when they come to their space.
People with intellectual disabilities will very often say that the thing they most want when they come to an arts venue is to feel welcome. How simple is that?