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Arts organisations are always looking for ways to develop and expand their audiences, and yet access for people with disabilities is often treated as an add-on or a legal compliance issue. Jo Verrent tells Eleanor Turney how arts organisations can start to open up their work to more people, and make their performances, websites and buildings more accessible.

Access all areas

“I work in disability arts because I think it’s genuinely, world-wide where the most exciting work is happening,” says Jo Verrent, Senior Producer at Unlimited and a speaker, consultant and diversity campaigner. Known for the phrase “diversity is delicious”, Verrent wants “to get people excited about the work of disabled artists”. Unlimited is an arts commissioning programme delivered by Shape Arts and Artsadmin that aims to embed work by disabled artists within the UK and international cultural sectors, reach new audiences and shift perceptions of people with disabilities.

Verrent, however, is also campaigning and advising on how to make all arts organisations and activities more accessible to people with disabilities. “There’s still a sense of a disabled audience being a secondary thing,” she says. “This is just wrong. The census shows that 18 - 25% of the population have some form of impairment and therefore might have some form of access need – and that’s a conservative estimate. That’s a quarter of your potential audience.”

Keep it simple

She continues: “Too many places look at access as an add-on rather than a legal requirement, and to do so is to discriminate against a quarter of your audience.” For example, she is “astounded” by the number of arts organisations which put out video content without captions: “I don’t watch anything that doesn’t have captions”. 

A composite still from a film that shows a wind up toy robot in the front left of the frame and a soft focus cropped head shot of a woman in the back right213 Things About Me by Richard Butchins, an Unlimited commission. Image by Richard Butchins

For anyone who is deaf, deafened or hard of hearing, captions can be the only way to enjoy video or live performance. Verrent points out that with the UK’s ageing population, around 50% of people could have some form of disability by 2020. That’s an awful lot of people to exclude. Verrent’s advice is “don't get hung up on describing things as ‘disability access' but instead label what it is you're providing so that people can find what they need. So the first thing is: get your head around the scale of it. The second thing is: get your head around the fact that it's not an add-on.”

As well as the fact that access should clearly not be a last minute addition for reasons of equality, Verrent explains that it’s also sensible economically: “Adding on access is the most expensive way to do it. So instead if you put access at the heart of what you do, you're not only being budget-minded, but you're also opening up your work to more people. Why would you not want to do that?”

First steps

Put in those terms, it’s hard to ignore how ableist much of the arts world can be, from inaccessible theatres to poorly designed websites to not captioning videos. For those wishing to improve, what are the first steps? “I think it's about drawing a line and then moving forward,” says Verrent.  “So if you have a website or a platform that's very video-heavy, and nothing has captions, then it feels impossible to even start. But if you say, from this point onwards, we will caption stuff, and we will look at our most popular five pieces and get those captioned, there are things you can do like that that will limit the cost. Nobody is saying, go through everything you have and retro-fit access so it’s all perfect immediately.”

A red stage set with two actors: a male stands, arm raised in animated conversation with a woman, who is on a bed dressed in black lace. She has no legs and on the wall behind her the text ‘I’m legless’ is projected like a text message.Wendy Hoose by Birds of Paradise, an Unlimited commission. Photo by Eamonn McGoldrick

“Access done correctly from the beginning has very little cost implication. So about captions — you've presumably written a script at some point, so you’ve got half of it done. There's a lot of tech that can automatically take sounds and translate it into words. And then it’s a short editing job to check for sense. We are creating online content that is shorter and shorter – you can't tell me there's no one in your organisation who has time to transcribe a three-minute video.”

She also suggests nominating someone senior in your organisation to keep an eye on access – much as many offices or organisations have a Green Champion or equivalent, but warns against some models. “It used to be common to have an access worker, a nominated person in an organisation. But usually they were employed at such a low level within the organisation, that they didn't really carry any authority. They couldn't challenge upwards. They were just dumped-on downwards. It was supposed to be their job to change things they couldn't change. We would really advocate against that kind of model.”

She also suggests using an online tool such as Slack to allow all people within an organisation to note and point out slip-ups or areas for improvement when they spot them:

“There will always be something. It's like proofreading. You want the whole organisation to feel passionate about access, to see it as a positive thing, and not some kind of draconian do-gooding.” All of these steps also form part of the wider conversations around diversity, because improving accessibility for one group can open up your work for other groups as well. For example, captions make your work accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing people, but can also help people whose first language isn’t English or the many people accessing video content on the move without headphones.

Verrent cautions against over-complicating access, and explains that clear language is hugely important: “People are very worried about marketing what they can't provide, so there is a tendency then to not say anything at all about access. It's much clearer if you go ‘this is what we can provide, and this is what we can't, this is why, and this is what we're working on’. People don't want spin around it.”

“There's no point promising something you can't deliver, but also, nobody’s got a magic wand. Nobody's going to fix everything overnight. But if we start having an open and honest debate about it, and we expect that of our audiences, then we can change the way these things are talked about. If we don't say anything, the assumption is we're not providing anything, and we're not willing to engage in conversation.”

Demonstrating a willingness to engage is important, too – which means providing contact details on your (accessible!) website, including multiple contact routes. “If it's ever just ‘phone this number’, I get really grumpy, because I want to email. But a lot of people don't want to email, they want to phone. And it doesn't have to be a named person’s number, it could just be a general one for your organisation.”

Thousands of brightly coloured helium filled party balloons lift the artists trussed and tied body off the ground. Audience members are walking around the installation which is set in a churchCherophobia by Noemi Lakmaier, an Unlimited commission. Photo by Grace Gelder


Beyond training staff and making sure that the organisation is doing all it can, there are also new digital tools that can help. Verrent references tools that work like enhanced trailers, aimed at autistic audiences so they can get a sense of what an event will be like, and decide if it’s for them. “I think that's brilliant. I would love to see this taken further – for example, festivals doing tasters online so that a much wider range of people – not just disabled people – can make a decision. If I'm going to pay out 20 quid for a ticket, I want it to be something that I'm going to really benefit from and like.”

“There's also some brilliant mapping apps that have been developed for learning-disabled people, getting them from public transport hubs to venues. I think all of that side of it is fantastic. It's not just captioning and audio description, although those things are important too.”

Verrent ends by commenting that people with disabilities are often the recipients of technology rather than active participants – “people are making stuff for us (i.e. hearing aids), but we’d like to be part of the conversation. Actually, we should be leading the conversation.” Her final thought on how arts organisations can work to improve access to their work? Talk to people, and take on board what individuals need without assuming that one focus group can possibly cover every disability or impairment. “Nowt about us without us,” says Verrent, which should apply to all thinking about audiences.

Top Tips:

  1. Embed accessibility into new work, websites and buildings from the start – it’s cheaper and simpler to think about it from the beginning than add it on later.
  2. Consider different forms of disability and impairment, but recognise that you can’t think of everything – talk to people, and find out what they need.
  3. Make sure your website is accessible, and include a phone number and an email address for any questions or suggestions.
  4. Make it clear what you can and can’t offer, and what you’re doing to improve.
About Unlimited

Unlimited is an arts commissioning programme that aims to embed work by disabled artists within the UK and international cultural sectors, reach new audiences and shift perceptions of disabled people.

Unlimited has developed a range of resources to make programmes and marketing more accessible - view them here.

To read case studies and articles about recent Space commissions, and for wider resources about producing work for digital platforms and growing your audience online - click here.