A week ago I left the castle with my support worker and got on a bus into town. It was a warm Saturday morning so waiting at the stop was no hardship. It was a good job it wasn’t because three buses went by before one came along where the wheelchair space was free and we could get on. It’s not unusual for buggies to be using the space, but this time it was other wheelchair users.
There was a simple answer why the 171 was suddenly so popular with wheelchair users – the Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre, a week-long festival showcasing new work by disabled artists. Not only was this an opportunity to see the diverse work made by disabled people, it was also a festival where diverse access needs had clearly been thought about a lot.
For example, there were twenty-eight performances with British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters, sixteen audio-described performances for people with visual impairments, seven performances with captioning, five touch tours where the audience had a chance to explore the set and feel the props before the show, and four relaxed performances, where moving about and making noise was fine.
I doubt if there were as many as four relaxed performances happening in the rest of London that day, certainly not for people over five years old. The inclusivity of the Unlimited Festival is rare, but it shouldn’t be. About 17% of the population identify as disabled, yet this isn’t reflected in the vast majority of shows that get put on, and certainly not in how accessible they are to disabled people.
This isn’t a moan or a rant. It’s just that I strongly believe making art inclusive makes it better, few audiences get to experience this and loads of people are missing out as a result. Non-disabled people rarely have the opportunity to see creative work relating to disability or to experience how ‘difference’ can be understood and celebrated in cultural contexts.
This idea is central to our show Backstage In Biscuit Land, which we performed twice last weekend as part of the Festival. We had a BSL interpreter, and some of my favourite moments were the exchanges between my vocal tics and the signer. At one point I involuntarily instructed her to tenderly stroke her own breasts and swear at the audience – which she dutifully did.
Having the show interpreted gives it a new dimension for us as performers, and for everyone in the audience too. Besides making it accessible to BSL users, it made the show funnier and more interesting for everyone – who isn’t interested in what the sign for “Cat sex pyjamas” looks like?
Disability often engenders fear, particularly among people whose lives haven’t been touched by it. But anyone at any time can be affected by disability and if you’ve thought about it in a meaningful way, or been part of an inclusive community, it’s much easier to process and adapt to if you become disabled.
I speak from personal experience, I’d had tics since I was about six but they were mild and barely noticeable. When they increased in my early twenties they began to have a much bigger impact on my life, my independence and my mobility. And it was tough. But it was made much easier by the fact that I was working with disabled people and had seen how all sorts of needs could be met.
In my experience, non-disabled people’s assumptions about what it means to be disabled are often way off target. Breaking these assumptions down is powerful because it promotes an increased understanding of difference that benefits everyone. Art is an ideal platform for doing this.
What happened at the Southbank last weekend was amazing. The strength of the Festival wasn’t just in the high quality and variety of the work presented, but also in the atmosphere of inclusivity that came with it. And it wasn’t loads of specialist equipment and infrastructure that created this. For anyone who hasn’t navigated the Southbank Centre in a wheelchair, it’s definitely not the most accessible building. What made it work was the flexible and friendly attitude of the staff and stewards.
At one point when the queues for the lift were too long, a member of staff appeared to help organise and facilitate people’s journeys between floors. And when I had a ‘ticcing fit’ in an entranceway and needed to come out of my wheelchair, some soft material (a padded piano cover) was quickly found to keep me safe. There was no panic, just friendly responsive support.
Unfortunately Unlimited’s biannual, and I don’t want to wait another two years to experience a Festival as inclusive and creative as this. My challenge to anyone making, programming, commissioning work or managing venues is to think inclusively: support the work being made by disabled artists, nurture new work, and build accessibility into your plans. This isn’t a niche consideration – disabled people make up nearly a fifth of the population, a fifth of your audience, and a fifth of your customers. So hop to it!
And then let’s sort out the buses!