Michele Taylor

Some thoughts on disabled people and the theatre industry

A blog by Michèle Taylor, Director for Change, Ramps on the Moon.

Two weeks ago, Welfare Weekly published the newly released data from the Office for Nationals Statistics (ONS) on deaths from COVID between 2 March and 15 May, based on disability status. I’m not all that used to working with statistics and, though I went to the ONS website and took a look at their raw data, I was grateful for the headline summary in Welfare Weekly. Two numbers took my breath away: disabled women under 65 “with limiting disabilities” are 11.3 times more likely to die of COVID than non-disabled women under 65 (the corresponding figure for men is that they are 6.5 times more likely to die than non-disabled men), and that around a third of all COVID deaths have been deaths of disabled people (whilst we make up around a fifth of the adult population).

77% of disabled audience members who responded consider themselves “vulnerable to Coronavirus” compared with 28% of non-disabled audience members who responded.

Indigo’s After the Interval Act 2 research (designed to capture audience views on returning to the arts) asked respondents to state whether they are disabled people and has revealed that 77% of disabled audience members who responded consider themselves “vulnerable to Coronavirus” compared with 28% of non-disabled audience members who responded. Although 41% of respondents would consider returning to venues with enforced social distancing and appropriate hygiene measures in place, only 8% would consider returning to a venue regardless of social distancing and this is less than half of the non-disabled response.

Key concerns influencing disabled audience members’ decisions about returning or not are:

– the availability, accessibility and hygiene of toilets (61%)

– confidence that appropriate seating is available within social distancing regulations (52%)

– and priority access where there is queue management (51%)

The research shows, too, that many disabled people are concerned about the ability of organisers to safely enforce social distancing. 

So many of us are feeling pretty unsafe right now, unsafe generally and unsafe in terms of what our experience of visiting arts venues might look like in the coming months.

So it was infuriating to say the least to read the comment by Melvin Benn last week (Managing Director of Festival Republic, responsible for delivering such high-profile events as Latitude, Download, Wireless and Leeds Festivals), referring to the measures he’s proposing to introduce at festivals to reduce the risks of COVID transmission. He acknowledged that there will be people who will still be worried, saying, “Those who are vulnerable will question whether it’s the right thing to do to go into one of those full, sweaty, big tops. But the vulnerable are a relatively small number of people. I don’t see any sign of fit, able people, young or middle-aged, losing any confidence, about the outdoors in particular” (my emphasis). 

Bear in mind that the Arts Council’s 2018 Equality, Diversity and The Creative Case Report shows that disabled people make up 12% of the audiences of all National Portfolio Organisations and these figures have clear financial significance for arts organisations.

Official rhetoric is fixated on the two official groups, those who are “clinically extremely vulnerable” and those who are “clinically vulnerable”. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, the thousands of people who know themselves to be particularly at risk from COVID but haven’t been officially notified as such (and therefore, crucially, can’t prove themselves to be) have become pretty much invisible as far as statutory support is concerned. (This is confused further by the fact that the shielding programme is to be ‘paused’ at the end of July.) 

Then there’s the insidious othering that comes from the rhetoric of ‘vulnerability’. We’re not seen as core audience members, core to the workforce or core to artistic teams; we can be dealt with separately, maybe even afterwards.

Is it any wonder, as Nickie Miles-Wildin and Jack Thorne point out, that we are scared?

It was so refreshing to read James Dacres’ article in The Guardian, in which he sets out the Royal and Derngate’s priorities. Point 3 in his 5 point plan is cultural diversity. Dacre says, “we need to make sure that tightening our belt doesn’t squeeze out people who have been historically underrepresented in the sector…Our world-leading D/deaf, neurodiverse and disabled talent must be championed. We can build a fairer, more sustainable and more representative sector.”

We need to stop talking about ‘vulnerable’ people. No disabled person should be prohibited from working where they feel safe enough, just as no disabled person should be expected to work where they don’t feel safe.

In my work over recent weeks ensuring that the disabled voice is heard as DCMS prepares guidance for the safe reopening of venues and the performing arts, I have focused on a small number of points. They do not constitute an exhaustive list of our concerns, but they seem to me to be the priorities in terms of things that arts leaders must get right as we move towards rebuilding our sector.

– Equality Impact Assessments must feature in all recovery planning, and must be given the same general status as Risk Assessments (carried out with professional experts, shared widely and clearly).

– We need to stop talking about ‘vulnerable’ people. No disabled person should be prohibited from working where they feel safe enough, just as no disabled person should be expected to work where they don’t feel safe. Similarly, no disabled person should be prohibited from attending an event if they choose to (unless, of course they are actually found to be carrying COVID) and events must be run in such a way as to ensure that disabled people are able to feel as safe as non-disabled people.

– We need support for innovation around maintaining and sustaining an offer that exists outside of traditional theatre buildings and structures, alongside our more traditional offer. This way we will ensure that as many people as possible continue to be able to experience the arts in all the ways we’ve learned about in recent weeks. 

– We need to recognise the importance of going beyond compliance and celebrating diversity. If we are all in the business of saving theatre right now, then disabled people are part of that theatre that is being saved.

– There is an economic reality at work here: the annual spending power of households that include a disabled person is currently thought to be £249bn and venues need that spend more than ever before. Add to this the fact that considering the requirements of disabled people will inevitably improve the working, volunteering and leisure environments for many others (for example, but not only, older people), as well as the expense of having to make adjustments in retrospect (always more expensive and always less effective) and there is a compelling financial imperative to get this right from the beginning as we plan for the reopening of our venues.

Read Andrew Miller’s report for Indigo in full here and here

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