Friday 27 July 2012

Accessibility: not just for audiences

kaberettPosted by kaberett

"Is the venue accessible?" we ask: it's rare to be offered the information.

"Oh yes," they say. (Usually.)

So we arrive, and we find that the green room is down a steep, narrow flight of stairs. Or that it's impossible to get a wheelchair (even one as narrow as mine) through the door to the backstage loos - and the nearest disabled toilet is behind locked doors. Or the stage is up a flight of stairs and there's no way to fit a ramp into the venue.

Let me spell that out: accessibility of venues seems, for most people, to be entirely about the question of whether a wheelchair-using audience member can get into the room.

I am not the first crip to get up on stage and perform. I am certainly not the first disabled person to want to get up on stage and perform.  As Galatea pointed out not very many weeks ago, all of us have been here all the time.
You wouldn't know it from the reactions we get.

I started using a wheelchair earlier this year. In a few short months, I've got very, very good at recognising a number of facial expressions that never used to happen to me: there's oh-no-what-happened; there's sorry-mate-I-didn't-see-you; and - my favourite! - there's shit-a-wheelchair-how-do-we-Handle-This.

So. Here's a quick primer:
    1. remember that access is not just about wheelchairs.
    2. remember that access is not just for the audience.
    3. if you're organising an event, ask the venue about accessibility, then include the information as part of your standard event information. Access info should be as easy to find as the date and location of the gig.
    4. if you provide venues, and you get asked about accessibility, don't forget to include information relevant to performers.
      ... and never, ever skimp on gathering and distributing this information because you don't know of any attendees or performers with access needs. It's a really good way to guarantee that we (and our carers, for those of us that have 'em) won't show up: if we don't know or can't easily find out the information in advance, an event is not accessible, regardless of the number of ramps and grab handles the venue's installed.

      And this? This is what I love about Lashings: about attending gigs, about performing in gigs, about the support network that's settled into place around me. In short, for me and my needs, Lashings is (relatively speaking - nobody's perfect) accessibility win -- and, if you don't mind, I'd like to summarise how.
      • I am given enthusiastic support when I raise the topic of writing grumpy letters to venues that told us they were accessible but turned out not to be.
      • We make sure that we have food available that's safe for everyone, when we snack during rehearsals.
      • Whenever possible, we set up (and advertise!) quiet space available to both performers and audience.
      • Where a show will involve audience participation, seating for people willing to participate and for those who would rather not is clearly marked.
      • Access information is included as standard when advertising events, and we've recently started to include trigger warnings.
      • Lashers don't blink twice when I ask them to carry my chair up or down stairs for me, or to get me some blood sugar Right Now.
      • We dedicate significant chunks of rehearsal time to working out how to rework existing dances so that they actively take advantage of wheelchair dancing, instead of treating the chair as an inconvenience. I like to call this discipline... chaireography.
       ... and then, of course, there's Edinburgh. The Fringe: where up to 15 of us cram into a flat that - to be honest - was not designed for that many people, and try not to implode. This summer will be my first Fringe, and it will be made even more exciting by the fact that a relatively high proportion of those going along will be new Lashers - and I for one haven't yet quite worked out how I fit into the group, and which of my corners need if not sanding then at least some padding.

      So what have we done about it?

      An awful lot of introspection and an awful lot of soul-baring. We've prepared documents on our access needs - food preferences, mealtime requirements, sleeping arrangements, triggers (from the common to the obscure - one of mine is the phrase "SPOON OF GLORY"...), and anything else we think it would be helpful to know. More importantly than that, we acknowledge that we won't all be able to memorise All Of The Things: that these documents are guidelines and exist to smooth our passage, not as texts to be desperately memorised before the practical exam. We've pre-arranged multiple set-lists, so that if any one person is having a bad pain or fatigue or brain day, The Show Can Go On. (What this means for you is that in order to catch all the material, you need to come and see us at least twice. ;) We've thought about how to arrange our flyering so people who can't stand for protracted periods aren't disadvantaged; we've worked out how to get between venue and flat. We've made sure that we know in advance what the venue is like, so those of us with mobility needs can plan around the reality. For the audience? Last week I created a master-list of triggers for all our acts, and the triggers for the evening's show will be available online and as a poster on the door - and we hope to be able to give more detail in person for anyone with concerns.

      Plus I'm being encouraged to write a myth-busting song about wheelchair users and mobility impairments: if there's a better way to make me feel that my disabilities are 100% not An Issue To Solve, I haven't thought of it yet.

      Of course, improving the accessibility of Lashings for Lashers (and, for that matter, for you-our-lovely-audiences) is very much an ongoing project: we're not perfect, we do mess up, and we don't (and can't) anticipate all of everyone's needs. Had people thought through all the implications of having a wheelchair user on stage before I showed up? Well, no, they hadn't. But what I've found - and keep finding, over and over - is that people listen to me, and make adjustments as necessary.

      Obviously, we'd like to do this for our audiences too: are there aspects of access that we should have thought about but haven't? Anything we can do form that perspective to make our shows more enjoyable for you? Please please please let us know - comments are great, but so are e-mails.

      On which note, I'll leave you with the photograph I'd've included last time had I been just a tad bit more organised. 'til Edinburgh!

      [A grinning person sits in a wheelchair, dressed all in black except for a red top hat, holding up a sign that reads "the Government says I'm not disabled."]


      1. Incidentally, needing wheelchair access to the stage and choreographing/blocking with a performer using a wheelchair are things that can happen unexpectedly - like (IIRC from one friend's experience) a few hours before the first performance - so being prepared to provide accomodation and change stage directions in near real-time is a good skillset to have.

      2. Disabled people should be treat right with equal benefits. They are people too, they have talents that they can show to other people.

      3. Theatres are odd, and frequently difficult, buildings. As you will have noticed ;-) Many were built in Victorian times, some as theatres and some as other things, and typically they've been altered and remodelled and bodged over the years so many times... Old ones in particular tend to be a nightmare to make accessible even FoH, and backstage gets an order of magnitude harder again. My old student theatre had its only access to the stage via a narrow staircase with corners, which presented significant problems even to able performers if they were wearing difficult costumes...

        ...none of which is an excuse if venues don't make an effort to do everything that they reasonably can. There will probably always be a few bits of most theatres that are reachable only via ladders, but my old amateur venue was built with wheelchair access to the fly gallery - which doesn't seem as though it should be extraordinary, but is[1]. So I guess that's progress.

        It's interesting that people tend to equate accessibility with wheelchair access. I guess perhaps they think of wheelchair access as being the most difficult thing to provide for, which I imagine is usually true, but then assume that because they have managed that they must automatically have allowed for everything else?

      4. It's really interesting to hear how Lashings prepares for events - particularly something like the Fringe which involves a whole run of shows and publicity in a different city. I'm familiar with the general accessibility problems of a lot of venues ("Why, yes, there's a disabled bathroom - it's just down those two steps. Or you can go out the front door, round the corner and get a member of staff to open the fire door for you...") but I hadn't considered that people making the bookings would only consider accessibility for audience members rather than performers - it's quite a revealing blind spot.

        Though as Swaldman mentioned, accessibility can cover a whole swathe of issues. I know someone who uses a wheelchair and is friends with people who organise events, and he is sometimes asked to just pop over and check that things are accessible for him - and then he has to point out that his accessibility needs are very different from some other people's.

        I'm looking forward to seeing you guys in Edinburgh for the first time!