I will never forget the year I spent being unable to use my hands for the most basic tasks. The challenges in my day were going to the toilet, turning the pages of a book and opening a door. I remember the shock when overnight I went from able-bodied ignorance to struggling to work, cook, clean and participate in social and other activities I’d taken for granted. I remember the painful moments of being left behind and left out. Yet I also remember the profoundly inspiring ways that my community rallied around me, fed me and supported me to return to creating theatre. My experience also shifted who I’m in community with and laid the groundwork for the immense gift of having deeper connections with people with a wide array of disabilities. This has made my world much richer – by getting to have the smarts, perspectives, love, friendship and community of many fabulous people. Whilst I have had ongoing challenges with my arms in the eight years since the original injury, I don’t claim to know what it’d be like to have a longer term or wider-reaching disability – my experiences give me only a small window into the world of disableism.
In the lead-up to a run of my theatre show No Strings (Attached) at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, I’m thinking a bunch about what it means to make my work “accessible” (oh and raising money too – click here!). There are so many layers to access. In reality, every single one of us has access needs – it’s just some of our access needs are prioritized over others. I’ve been deeply inspired by reading and conversations with disability justice activists – particularly those who are Black, Indigenous, persons of colour, queer and/or trans.
A central part of access is about being connected with community and listening deeply to what it means for people to be able to engage with a performance work. How do we promote a culture of what Mia Mingus calls “access intimacy“: where the access needs of our friends, loves, and communities are met, felt, and deeply understood?
Given that this is a big shift in where many of us put our time and resources, I’ve also been reflecting on why it is important to make my work more accessible. For me, it’s not just about simplistic notions of equality and wanting to offer my work to others. It’s about creating vibrant dialogue and action alongside others to propel us towards living in the world I want to live. It’s about the ways that having a wide array of people in my audiences creates juicy connections and conversation. I see my work as one thread in a larger conversation – it’s meant to spark reflection and discussion, healing, questioning and change. It’s both a response to other threads of the conversation and meant to be responded to. So if I’m not engaging the right people, that conversation becomes less vital, and the work loses its potential and potency. This is why I feel strongly about spending time and generating money and other resources to make sure Deaf community, sober folks, low income peoples, parents, people with disabilities and others are a part of the conversation that bounces inside and outside the theatre walls.
So, I’ve started to list some access considerations in relation to performances and events to guide my own performance planning and act as a resource for others. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
Some access considerations for performances and events
Show content & artists:
- A show is more accessible to many folks when under-represented stories get told. Seeing one’s own reflection in the work can be a powerful experience. Important questions therefore include: who makes the creative works? Have there been people of colour, queers, women (trans and non-trans), other trans folks, sex workers, poor and working class folks, people with disabilities, and survivors in the centre of producing and creating the work?
- Having artistically compelling work is an important part of people being able to engage with performance, so having the time and resources to cultivate one’s skills and incubate a piece of work is also an access issue.
- Have the performances’ content been carefully screened for transphobic, racist, sexist, sex-work-phobic and other hurtful content? If you’re curating a performance night, do you know what others will be performing? Have you discussed your stance on content? There is a big difference between making work that is challenging versus work that perpetuates oppressive ideas and behaviour. For instance, if you are depicting a transphobic incident, does the performance actually unpack or transform the transphobia? Or does it simply replicate it without challenging audience members to be critical? Another way to consider content – are you asking people in the audience to sit through things more painful for them than for you? As a white person, if I’m exploring racism in the piece in a graphic way, I’m asking folks of colour to risk being triggered in a way that I don’t have to be – just like outside the theatre walls. Contrast this to a person of colour making a piece of work that is uncomfortable for white folks – this is challenging the usual power dynamic rather than replicating it. We need to take into account the context in which we’re creating work including systems of power.
- Are triggering topics dealt with in a sensitive and nuanced way? For example: physical violence, emotional abuse, sexual assault or violence, live gun shot sounds, police violence, suicide and childhood abuse.
- I know as a survivor, seeing graphic sexual violence can be triggering – even more so when it’s a live performance compared to TV. Personally, I find I can go deeper with the content if it is suggestive rather than graphic. I realize there are also rationales for presenting more graphic content, in which case – are there trigger warnings? Are there debrief options or active listeners available?
First Nations/ Indigenous groups:
- Is there an acknowledgement of the local First Nations/ Indigenous groups given verbally and/or in the program? Although remember this can risk become tokenistic if not coupled with many other layers of change.
- Will alcohol be served? Particularly in the first year of getting sober, I found it very difficult to be in spaces with alcohol.
- Are there good non-alcoholic drinks – not just soda/soft drinks – e.g. quality affordable juices or fancy mocktails?
- Are there sober buddies available to accompany folks upon request?
- Are there options to have some alcohol free shows?
- I’ve written an article with more about juggling the needs of sober folks and those who use alcohol or drugs – click here.
Visually Impaired & Blind access:
- Are you providing audio description for people who are blind, have low vision, or who are otherwise visually impaired?
- Is seating close to the stage prioritized for visually impaired folks?
- Are the images on your website described with alt tags?
- Some mentioned in the comments a group called Vocal Eye who arrange touch tours of props.
- Is there ASL or BSL or AUSLAN interpretation for Deaf folks? Have you allowed enough rehearsal time with the interpreters and given them the scripts well in advance?
- Are your promo videos captioned?
- Have you done promo videos in ASL? Remember it’s an entirely different language – don’t assume all Deaf folks read English.
- If it’s a scripted show, have you considered engaging a Deaf person to do the interpretation? For No Strings (Attached) we’re having a Deaf artist team up with a hearing ASL interpreter. Having a Deaf theatre artist on board means the quality of interpretation will be excellent. It’s also a way to prioritize an employment opportunity for someone who faces huge systemic barriers to employment.
- Is the work in accessible English that you don’t need a PHD to understand?
- Are there other language translations for which you could consider projecting subtitles? I’ve worked with folks to translate No Strings (Attached) into three languages for projecting subtitles while touring: Puerto Rican Spanish, Italian and German – it’s made a huge different to engagement with the work.
Trans and gender non-conforming folks:
- Are there gender-neutral washroom options as well as gendered washrooms? Can you temporarily transform a washroom into a gender-neutral option?
- Have the box office and ushering staff been briefed and trained to not assume someone’s pronoun?
- Are there affordable ticket options e.g. sliding scale options? Are there pay what you can shows? Or other subsidized or free ticket options?
- Are there options where free or subsidized tickets can be put aside under people’s name in advance? I know some folks who feel too ashamed to turn up and say they don’t have any money, so having their name on the door as a complimentary ticket makes a difference.
- Are transport tickets provided e.g. bus or train tickets? Some folks can’t afford to get to the show either.
- Is there childcare provided? Or if you run into public liability challenges, are there informal groups who could organize with each other to do collective childcare?
- Are there subsidized tickets or pay what you can options to offset the cost of babysitting?
- Are there matinees or early shows programmed which might better suit the schedules of parents?
- Are there “baby in arms” options or other “relaxed theatre” shows where a little more noise in the audience would be ok?
Fat folks & larger folks:
- Is the seating wide enough to be comfortable for fat or larger folks? Also, narrow seating with armrests can be very difficult for larger folks to fit in.
- Have you encouraged a fragrance free space in your promotional materials? Scented deodorants, perfume and colognes can be toxic for some folks.
- Is there fragrance free soap in the washrooms, and are fragrance free cleaning products used?
- For more info on how to be fragrance free, click here.
- Have you considered eliminating any strobe lighting? It can cause seizures.
- If you are determined to use strobe lighting, have you posted a warning?
- Is it wheelchair accessible? Scooter accessible? That means both entry into the building and within the building.
- Are the seating aisles wide enough? (at least 36 inches)
- Are there good audience spots for people who use wheelchairs and scooters – rather than spots tucked up the back or with terrible sight lines? Can wheelchair users also sit with their non-chair using friends? And make sure these seats (i.e., empty spaces) are organized ahead of time so you don’t have to shuffle chairs out of the way – particularly if you’re accepting latecomers to the show. Remember, in a disableist world, it can be very difficult for some people with disabilities to get there on time due to unexpected broken elevators, wheelchair transport delays etc.
- If the main concept of your performance involves standing rather than sitting in a space, are there chairs for folks who can’t stand for long? If it’s a show that’s likely to be sold out and have “standing room only” – are chairs prioritized for people who need them, regardless of whether they can pay a premium price? Audiences can also support in this by making sure we are mindful about keeping good seats for others. Additionally, pillows and carpeting for folks to sit or lie down?
- Is the space so crowded that access pathways become blocked?
- Is the stage wheelchair accessible so you can have people who use wheelchairs as performers as well as audience?
- Are there railings in the washrooms?
- If it’s not wheelchair accessible, how many stairs are there? Is there a railing?
- If the elevator breaks down, have you considered cancelled/ rescheduling the show?
Listing access details in promo:
- Living in a profoundly disableist world, many of us will not be able to meet all of these access needs, all of the time. At a very minimum, are access details clearly posted along with event information so that people don’t have to spend their valuable time doing the research? Make sure to include layers of detail like the nearest wheelchair accessible public transport stations and if it’s not wheelchair accessible – how many steps there are.
These actions are not something I can or should be able to do on my own. One of the many things I’ve learned from disabled activists is the power and importance of inter-dependence, as reflected in one of the 10 principles of Disability Justice framework by the groundbreaking performance project, Sins Invalid.
So, I’m asking for your support to donate money towards the access costs of No Strings (Attached). Here’s the link to the Fund What You Can campaign – please donate and help spread the word!
Big thanks to Arti Mehta and Chanelle Gallant for their valuable feedback and input into this article!
Photo by Hillary Green