The pandemic has made arts events accessible to all: Why change that?

As gigs and live events return, disabled people hope accessibility gains made during the pandemic will remain 
The pandemic has made arts events accessible to all: Why change that?

Róisín Power Hackett from Kill, Co Waterford. Picture: Patrick Browne

As gigs and live events return, disabled people hope accessibility gains made during the pandemic will remain, writes Michelle McGlynn

As pilot events are well under way around the country, excitement is growing at the thought of going to a gig or taking a trip to the theatre.

Finally, a return to something that resembles normal.

After months on end of having no access to live events or cultural activities, the return of arts events is a light at the end of what has been a very long and very dark tunnel.

But for a large section of society, a return to a pre-pandemic ‘normal’ would mean returning to a world without access to those same events.

The wider population has caught a glimpse this past year of what it means to be prevented from attending the wonderful events that are so important to our culture.

Many have said that they would have been lost during the lockdowns had they not been able to access streamed events and gigs.

But there are people who were prevented from going to certain events and venues long before Covid-19 arrived on our shores due to accessibility issues.

When lockdown happened and things moved online, it opened up society and new experiences for people who have disabilities, mobility issues or other access issues.

The sudden shift in how we experienced these events allowed people to participate in live events, talks, music and social activities where previously they were excluded because of physical barriers/access issues.

Sweeping changes 

As society re-opens, people don’t want to see the world shut them out again. There is a real fear that as venues start to open up any gains won over the past 16 months will be lost as the wider public will no longer need them.

“If we can make these kinds of sweeping changes which we have in the last year to facilitate the wider public to continue to take part in cultural and economic life then we should be able to continue to facilitate people with disabilities to take part in live events whether they do it in person or virtually,” said Gillian Murphy of Enable Ireland.

“We would not want to see a return to a situation which would exclude people with disabilities, making up 13% of our population, from taking part in cultural activities and community events which some have been able to enjoy for the first time over the last year.” 

Some venues around the country were already moving towards making their spaces more accessible by offering Irish Sign Language (ISL) at some shows or putting on special sensory-friendly performances.

Indeed, some have already expressed their commitment to retaining aspects of the measures brought in as a result of the pandemic such as live-streaming.

Graham McLaren and Neil Murray, directors at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, have said that as audiences return to the theatre, they will continue to offer a hybrid experience.

"To ensure we are still doing our best to serve all of Ireland's audiences we have developed a hybrid format that allows us to have a limited live audience in the auditorium, while it is being filmed and live-streamed to people at home at the same time."

Both venues and people campaigning for greater accessibility have called for funding to be made available to improve access whether that involves offering events online or offering signing/captioning at shows or improving structural accessibility.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Minister of State for Equality, Disability and Integration, Anne Rabbitte said she has met with a number of artists with disabilities over the course of the lockdown and heard first-hand of the difficulties they face.

Ms Rabbitte said she is well aware of the need for additional funding to support the sector to improve access.

The Fianna Fáil TD said she would welcome a cross-departmental approach with Minister for Arts, Catherine Martin to make progress and see what changes can be made to ensure more equitable access to the Arts.

“For someone with a disability, the old way of doing things often meant being excluded from venues and events so we would not want to see a return to that but to a new approach which is more inclusive and facilitates in person and virtual participation for everyone,” said Ms Murphy.

Which begs the question, why return to ‘normal’ when we could move towards something better?

‘We've never figured out a way that works for everyone’ 

Maria Ní Fhlatharta is an avid music fan and like most people around the country cannot wait until she can get back to see her favourite artists play live again.

Unlike a lot of other people though, Maria is all too familiar with missing out on live events.

In recent years, she has been able to figure out a way to go to gigs and other events in a way that works for her. In the year before the pandemic, Maria attended more gigs than she had been to in the previous decade.

One of the co-founders of Disabled Women Ireland, Maria wants to see real change as we move forward beyond the pandemic so that other people who have been locked out of cultural events can figure out their own way to participate in cultural events.

"This is a very important part of our lives and I think we kind of trivialise it in a way which is disrespectful to the arts and it doesn't serve people well," she said.

She is somewhat hopeful that since people have been forced to go without so much over the past 16 months, they might emerge from lockdown with greater empathy for those who experienced that loss and inability to access the arts long before Covid-19 entered our lives.

Maria Ní Fhlatharta, co-founder of Disabled Women Ireland. Picture: Laura Hutton
Maria Ní Fhlatharta, co-founder of Disabled Women Ireland. Picture: Laura Hutton

“I'm not very hopeful… but maybe. That's the optimist in me. I think that to be kind of negative about how we are going is to be optimistic about what we could be.” 

Already there have been missed opportunities for fundamental accessibility reform, she says.

With venues closed for months on end and the construction industry open for a large portion of lockdown, why was that time not used to go into buildings and venues to see what work could be done to make them more accessible once they reopened?

People are striving to get back to normal but Maria says the normal we once knew doesn’t exist.

"There is no ‘back to normal’. There is no normal life. It is going to look different. I think we can really seize on that opportunity to really make those changes.” 

Citing the UN strategy of Building Back Better, she says the same strategy should be applied in the case of the pandemic — if you can build back you do it in a way that is more equitable, fairer, more accessible.

Many artists, especially those in the music industry, moved online in order to reach their audiences and Maria believes it will be really worrying if we lose that as it is something that benefits so many people — the Irish diaspora, people with all kinds of disabilities, older people, people in rural areas.

The move online also meant that artists who have not been able to perform live due to access issues were able to reach greater numbers as people logged on to fill the newfound void that lockdown brought with it.

We are missing out if we go back to how things were before when artists, musicians and other performers didn’t have the same access to audiences as others, Maria says.

"We've never figured out a way that works for everyone.” 

But in the darkness of lockdown, we have been given an opportunity to do just that.

‘Culture is so important to the human condition. We shouldn’t miss out because we’re disabled’ 

As a visual artist and a curator as well as a person living with disabilities, Róisín Power Hackett has experience dealing with accessibility issues from every angle.

Over the past 16 months, Róisín has worked on three projects — all involving people with disabilities. There was a band who filmed performances to be streamed online, a podcast and an exhibition on disability and the arts which also took place online.

When gigs, exhibitions and plays move to an online platform, this offers people with disabilities a way to tailor their experience to their own needs. This opened up a whole new world of possibilities for many people.

“If something is pre-recorded then somebody — especially someone with autism or fatigue or a disability where they need to take a break — they can take that break. They can lower the volume, for people with hearing impairments a lot of videos started to include captioning,” Róisín explains.

“In a very few instances ISL was included. In the past, that wouldn't have happened.” 

For those living with a physical disability, online events eliminate the often arduous task of navigating the physical world which often forgets to include them in its plans.

To take away the option of joining an event in a vitual capacity once Ireland reopens is to refuse many access to the live arts.

"Culture is so important to the human condition. It's needed. We should not be not allowed to have that because we are disabled.

“The arts have sustained a lot of people during Covid. Some of that art comes from disabled people, it's just you won't know it comes from disabled people because not a lot of disabled people go 'I'm a disabled artist',” Róisín says.

When you do not make the arts accessible to all then you not only prevent people from enjoying and experiencing the arts, you also keep many creators from being able to share their work with the wider community.

There are small steps that can be taken such as providing seating for people who cannot stay standing for long periods of time.

Another step that is vital to accessibility reform is disability and equality training which Róisín says should be rolled out at all venues across the board.

Some art spaces have already undertaken training with others set to introduce it over the coming months. Róisín says the awareness that is created by doing disability and equality training is important especially among front of house staff.

Speaking to her own experiences, Róisín says that because she has a kind of mild cerebral palsy it can appear to others that she is slightly drunk even when she isn’t and this has led to her being refused entry to venues.

Others with the same disability have told her this type of experience has resulted in them not going out to nightclubs and other venues.

“What I have had to do sometimes is — I have a free travel pass and a splint on my leg — and I've had to show them my splint and show them my free travel pass and say 'look, I am disabled, that's why I'm like this'.

“Then they feel really guilty and they let you in. But you have to do that, you have to out yourself.” 

She says she has even been mocked on occasion by bouncers before they have been told about her disability.

It is here that disability and equality training comes in. It is also helpful in making staff aware of the numerous ‘invisibilities’ that people live with.

Róisín believes there should be public funding for art spaces that should be specifically spent on improving access.

"According to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, anyone who signs up to that —
which our Government has — is technically supposed to give access to culture for people with disabilities which obviously our Government doesn't.” 

Róisín says she wants to see Government departments come together to live up to their obligation to make arts accessible for all.

‘Access needs to come first not last’ 

Ireland is several steps behind many countries when it comes to addressing issues of accessibility in the arts and it is not just audiences who want to see a change, venue owners are calling for supports to help them expand their audiences.

Ashley Keating, programme manager at the Cork Opera House, says that colleagues in the UK have not just one person but entire teams dedicated to accessibility in their venues.

While it is something that is slowly happening in Ireland, the pandemic has shown just how many people benefit when the arts are opened up.

Mr Keating says that with around 320 shows a year put on in the Opera House, there is very little time to take a step back and rethink how best to deliver productions. 

In saying that, pre-pandemic they have put on special sensory performances and signed shows.

“To have someone on staff whose job is just dealing with accessibility like training people, figuring out what shows you could work with to make them accessible either in person or streaming would be brilliant,” he says.

Creating a new role will, of course, require money. Something venues are not exactly flushed with after being closed for most of the pandemic. Even doing something seemingly simple like streaming performances requires more funds.

“You need a director calling the shots, camera people, editors. You're talking about 8-9 extra crew and the cameras themselves are high tech and that is costly.” 

Sophie Motley, artistic director at the Everyman theatre, says they were lucky enough to receive funding as part of an Arts Council capacity building initiative during the pandemic. 

This enabled them to buy their streaming equipment and appoint a head of audiovisual production.

Sophie Motley, artistic director at The Everyman, Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane
Sophie Motley, artistic director at The Everyman, Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane

She said it would be a shame to lose people that have been able to come back to the arts through the accessibility of digital performances.

"I think if making work digital has enabled more people to be able to experience theatre that couldn't otherwise then it is only a positive for everybody.” 

While Ms Motley knows that Government or Arts Council funding for accessibility is something that many venues require, there is also an onus on them to plan for access in their budget.

"Companies need to consider the journey of somebody who has a disability or who needs a more accessible journey into the event, be it online or live. We've got to consider that from the moment that the project has been planned.

"Access needs to come first not last. We have to put access in our budget because it's easy to say that you can't afford it.” 

Ms Motley thinks that some sort of blueprint would be helpful for places that are struggling to figure out how to begin or how to manage on their budget.

She said a document that is available to everyone that outlines how to do realistically improve access on a tiny budget, on a medium-sized budget and a larger budget would be an extremely helpful starting point.

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