Watershed: working with and for our Deaf and hard of hearing customers

A group of people sitting together engagaed in conversation, with a black board in the foreground that reads 'Welcome'
Photograph by Watershed, Bristol

Louise Gardner, Head of Communications at Watershed in Bristol, explains how Unlimited Impact helped the venue realise their ambition to improve access for Deaf and hard of hearing audiences.

Here at Watershed we want to be as welcoming, inclusive and accessible as we can for all of our customers, audiences, staff and visitors.

Over the past six months we have been a participant on Arts Council England’s Agent for Change programme, which sought to explore how arts organisations like us can be more inclusive, we also received further support with a grant from Unlimited Impact; supporting artists and venues to celebrate the work of disabled artists, funded by Spirit of 2012.

We asked to be matched to an Agent who was Deaf to help us look at what we could do organisationally to be more inviting and more welcoming for Deaf and hard of hearing audiences.


We were delighted to be matched to David Ellington (above), a Deaf British Sign Language (BSL) user, filmmaker and artist from Bristol who has been working with us across several areas: from training staff in Deaf Awareness and basic BSL, to building accessibility into our ongoing cinema programme, as well as looking at our communications and the ways we reach this community.

David has done an amazing job and the response we have had from our Deaf and hard of hearing customers has been incredible. We have introduced a monthly Deaf Conversations About Cinema event. This is a relaxed, informal opportunity for both Deaf/hard of hearing and hearing customers to come together to talk about a film in our programme (following a Descriptive Subtitled screening).

One of the best outcomes of this project is how it has brought the different teams at Watershed so much closer together. I cannot begin to tell you how much enthusiasm and delight there has been from across the teams in response to the opportunity to learn some basic BSL and Deaf Awareness. I asked some of our staff if they could tell you in their own words what impact it has had on them and their colleagues…

‘Personally I have really enjoyed the whole Agent for Change process I suppose I have never really thought about or understood the challenges that face the Deaf community in every day life, however with just a few training sessions with David I have become much more confident in my communication skills.’ 

‘David’s involvement in the organisation has boosted general staff morale and brought teams together that would otherwise work relatively independent of each other. Our customer facing staff from Café/Bar, Box Office and Cinema had the unique opportunity to learn together from David and from each other, which has linked those areas together in a unanimous excitement in being able to sign words and phrases they say every day.’

‘The Front of House team benefited immensely for the BSL training we received from David. I think it helped staff feel more comfortable and confident in being able to give it a go. It has given all that attended the course an insight into the language and the confidence to be able to engage with those that use it. I know many of our ushers are keen to continue practicing and are looking forward to being able to communicate with a new audience.’

This is just the beginning for us – the totally unexpected outcome of our work with David has been that we as Watershed staff have become closer and got to know each other a little better – what a wonderful outcome. We are committed to continuing our regular monthly film events for our audiences and we are just as committed to continuing our ongoing use of and practice of BSL. We have cross departmental champions of BSL, we are creating an in house resource pack which includes film clips of simple words and useful phrases in BSL that are all done by team members, we have a weekly ‘spell your lunch in BSL’ get together every Friday where we practice and there are plenty of other plans afoot to continue our learning.

Come and check up on us to see how we are doing.

Further information can be found at watershed.co.uk

Watershed is an Unlimited Ally, if your organisation is interested in becoming an Unlimited Ally too, please get in touch us@weareunlimited.org.uk




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