AMA Conference 2015: Stay Curious

Last week Jo Verrent, Senior Producer for Unlimited, spoke at the keynote session on Diversity at Stay Curious, AMA’s 2015 conference. Keep reading to find out what she said…

Four things to get out of the way about “disabled audiences” before we start:

  1. We are not aliens from another planet – Disability does not discriminate: we are in all sections of audience, particularly older people, family audiences, low income/disengaged groups. Disabled people make up between 18-22% of the population and it’s going up. We are in one in four families.
    Two aliens sitting among an audience
  2. The collective noun for disabled people is not ‘a bus load’ – The days of day centre provision where you could ‘bus in’ a group of disabled people have gone. This means you have to work harder, but the rewards are greater…
    Typical UK Access Bus
  3. You can’t always spot us – The majority of disabled people – around 60% of us have hidden impairments – but this doesn’t mean we don’t have significant access needs. You HAVE to ask everyone about what they might need, rather than assuming you can guess.
    An edited road sign showing a crowd of stick men with text reading, May contain hidden disabilities
  4. We won’t always tell you what we need – This is complicated as sometimes we don’t know, and even when we do, we are so used to things not being provided, we assume they won’t be unless you tell us very directly. 

A girl holding a zip in her mouth

Every time you decide to do anything, you make a choice – witting or unwittingly – to include or exclude us. And the repercussions are huge.

A personal example: if you put up a video on your website – perhaps a training resource aiming to reach the sector – have you included subtitles? No, because you had to do it quickly.

In doing that you have chosen to exclude me from that piece of content. You may not have meant to, but , that is what you have done. What can I expect from your venue, programme, event or organisation as a whole? Why should I bother engaging with you when you can’t be bothered to engage with me?

A tweet from the AMA conference, reading - Jo Verrent: talking about disabled audiences- “if you don’t engage with me why should I engage with you?” #AMAConf

In fact, anyone who wants to access that video in a space where sound isn’t appropriate, anyone with English as a second language, anyone with crappy headphones and a busy background environment. We find this all the time with access solutions: they may be designed to help and support disabled people but actually loads of other people benefit from them.

We can’t use the ‘we haven’t got the money’ excuse any more – adding captions to video content is incredibly easy and very cheap – new technologies have driven prices down hugely over the past ten years. It’s not a specialist thing and even if its beyond you technically, then you can always do the ultimate cheap cheat and put up a Word transcript document.

A tweet from the AMA Conference reading .@joverrent raises a good point in her keynote and we've started adding closed captions to our screencasts #amaconf

So if it’s not the money – what is it? Why does it happen all the time? Why is it still seemingly so acceptable to discriminate against so many people: deaf, blind, with other impairments?

Access is still seen as an ‘add on’. Most of you will still be thinking of access and disabled audiences as something to focus on as an extra, something in addition to your main marketing tasks. You need to change the lens.
A tweet from the AMA conference, reading - Jo Verrent: 18-22% of the population is disabled. Acces shouldn’t be an add on. #AMAConf

If you put access at the centre of what you do – everything will be easier and ultimately cheaper – it’s a win, win situation. You won’t need the special ‘access meeting’ because its part of all the other meetings you endlessly have anyway so it takes less capacity, you won’t need to spend so much money, because if you design with access in mind from the start you dramatically reduce your costs – access as an ‘add on’ is always less successful and more expensive than access that’s been built in from the get go. And you’ll reach a wider range of people simply because people can read, share, access and understand what you are offering – you’ll diversify your audiences and tick all those lovely boxes for your funders too!

I’m the senior producer for Unlimited, a commissions programme for disabled artists which works across the UK and internationally. And I’m also deaf, or hearing impaired, or a bone anchored hearing aid user or whatever terminology you fancy using…

At Unlimited we promote the work of disabled artists – and lets just be clear the work of disabled artists doesn’t only appeal to disabled audiences.

We have a range of work: work for children (such as ‘Edmund the Learned Pig‘, Fittings, which is part of the British Council Edinburgh Showcase this summer) and comedy pieces (such as ‘Backstage in Biscuit Land’, Touretteshero, also part of the British Council Edinburgh Showcase and also in the iF Platform); even a sex comedy – ‘Wendy Hoose‘, by Birds of Paradise which is part of the Made in Scotland showcase.  We’ve pieces in development too such as Him‘, by Shelia Hill, a new theatre piece coming next year focusing on ageing, with an associated photography exhibition, and also a new piece by Claire Cunningham, ‘The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight‘, duetting with Jess Curtis from the US.

We are a programme run by Shape Arts and Artsadmin, and are supported by ACE, Creative Scotland, Arts Council of Wales and the majority of the audiences for our work are audiences looking for innovative, exciting and excellent work. We also have funds from Spirit of 2012 to extend our reach – geographically, in relation to young disabled people and also in terms of debate and discussion to deepen the understanding around the work.

Marketing support and audience development has been one of the key features of our work with venues and promoters through this strand of activity – Unlimited Impact.

We have four rules for anything we support from these funds:

  1. It has to be bespoke – every individual situation needs an individual response
  2. It has to be endorsed top down – and within the ethos of the organisation
  3. It has to be assessed, measured, quantified – it has to be about making a long term difference
  4. It has to involve disabled people within design and evaluation

Some examples…

  • Luminate Festival of Creative Ageing  – we toured a piece with them and worked together to create an access guide to support smaller venues taking their first steps towards becoming more accessible. We’re working to improve audio description at a festival who didn’t have a good response when they offered it previously – we are doing research into the possible audience, focus groups and creating a specific set of guidelines for next year.
    A tweet from the AMA conference, reading - Great guide to making your theatre or venue accessible - presented at #amaconf
  • Farnham Maltings and their no strings attached scheme where previously no disabled people had ever applied – a few minor changes and this year three of the seven awards went to disabled people. 
  • And Fierce Festival, who said:

‘Fierce Festival found that being an Unlimited Ally sharpened our thinking as an organisation and developed our practice as curator-producers.  Wearing this badge on our festival programme felt like a really active, positive, public statement and we are proud to be part of the movement’ 

I want to end with an opportunity to make all of you feel empowered about what you can do to make a difference – here are my five top tips…

  1. See access and diversity as integral elements, not bolt ons
  2. Be creative – there is no formula
  3. It’s everyone’s responsibility, everyone needs targets
  4. Monitor the important things
  5. “Nothing about us, without us”

And get in touch! With disabled artists, disabled audience members – or with us.

If you are interested in becoming an Unlimited ally, email to start a conversation.

A tweet from the AMA conference, reading - I think @joverrent is just excellent. She's already being brilliant #amaconf





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