Your Ableism Is Showing

I’ve waited a couple days before writing this post to let the rage and fury subside so I can write it with the clarity it deserves.

First a warning, this post is about ableist attitudes in theatre, journalism and beyond and I want disabled people to be able to choose whether to engage with it or not. This isn’t because disabled people are ‘snowflakes’ but because encountering barriers and hostility is exhausting, so forewarning readers feels like the right thing to do.

I’m an artist and theatre maker who has Tourettes. I started making shows because my involuntary vocal and motor tics made it difficult for me to be in an audience. I realised that taking to the stage was the only way I could be in a theatre without be asked to leave.

A hand drawn digital illustration of William Shakespeare the background is deep blue with cursive text that reads Global Access forming a repeat pattern. A globe takes up the foreground of the bottom right corner.

The idea that theatres are exclusive places filled with revered silence is relatively new and wouldn’t be recognisable to playwrights like Shakespeare. Early theatre expert Professor Cameron Hunt McNabb explained this in a guest post a few years ago, saying:

“It might be surprising to many that the earliest drama of England – the plays of medieval drama and even those of Shakespeare – were far more inclusive of disabled persons than modern theatre.”

This is particularly relevant when, this weekend, the Telegraph, The Sun, The Times, The Express, The Mirror and The Daily Mail all ran stories mocking the information Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre provides audiences ahead of their performances. The sneery outcry was triggered by journalists quoting parts of the visual story for the Globe’s latest production of Romeo and Juliet. Telegraph journalist Craig Simpson appears to have gone through the whole thing, ridiculing it line by line.

Visual stories are access documents that use words and images to explain what to expect from a performance. They’re made for disabled people with a broad range of impairments but can be particularly useful to neurodivergent people and those with learning disabilities. They usually include information on:

The sensory landscape of a show – for example the sounds and lighting to expect. I’m sensitive to noise so I take ear-defenders to shows that I know will be loud.

The content – such as key characters and the basic plot, but also warnings about anything that might be upsetting for people with particular conditions or experiences.

The staging – so audience members can choose or request seats that work for them. For example, because I experience seizure-like episodes, being able to get out quickly is important for me.

Visual stories are usually written in Easy Read or plain language to make them as accessible as possible to those with learning disabilities. Theatre in this country has a deservedly bad reputation for elitism, a reputation that many in the industry have been putting all their efforts into changing.

Shakespeare’s Globe has been providing consistent, high-quality access information for nearly a decade, and to see this work wilfully misrepresented in the press is crushing.

None of the stories I saw acknowledged that most of the quotes they were mocking came from a document created specifically for disabled people. They omitted loads of contextual information, so here’s what I think people reading these stories ought to know:

Visual stories or easy read guides are not new – As well as the Globe, many other venues provide them so reporting this as ‘news’ is ridiculous. All organisations in the UK have a legal duty to provide information to disabled people in accessible formats. This includes theatres, and that’s been the case since 1996.

Many neurological conditions affect how a person processes sensory information. I’ve mentioned how sound, for example a gunshot, can affect me and mean I need to know in advance what to expect. Likewise, there are learning-disabled people who need support to understand aspects of the story and to differentiate what is real and what is acting. That’s why the Globe’s current visual story includes information like: “At the end, Juliet shoots herself. This is not real.”

Not everybody will be familiar with the plots of Shakespeare’s plays. Content warnings are for giving people the information they need so they can make informed decisions for themselves. If you don’t need them, ignore them, but don’t judge those who do. We expect and accept information before and after TV programmes, and we have age restrictions for films – so why should theatre be any different?

Every time I want to see a show that’s not a relaxed performance I have to do hours of extra work. It involves contacting the venue, explaining my tics and checking about content that might increase them. Pre-show information takes some of this labour away and lets me know that I’ve been thought about and that I’m welcome.

When people like Craig Simpson wade in on a subject they appear to know nothing about, writing in ignorance about access, it speaks to a pernicious type of ‘normative privilege’. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the journalists writing these nasty stories don’t experience disabling barriers, or even know anyone who does. These articles are full of assumptions about who The Globe’s audience is, and they definitely don’t include learning disabled and neurodivergent people.

The consequence of writing about access requirements without even understanding them, is that disabled people risk losing even more ground at a time when the pandemic has already taken away so much. While I worry that this coverage will put other disabled people off using information that could help them, my main concern is that venues will stop creating visual stories or other access considerations for fear of negative publicity. It’s entirely unacceptable for journalists to use their platform to stand in the way of progress and snigger like naughty schoolboys at anyone who isn’t exactly the same as them!

Visual stories and access guides have opened up theatre for me by letting me make informed choices about what shows to go to. They mean I can go prepared, take creative risks, and see exciting, challenging work without risking my health or wellbeing. The Globe and some other theatres are doing great work in this area and should be applauded not mocked.

For anyone who wants to know more about access to the arts for disabled people, check out the work of: Quiplash, Graeae, Shape Arts, Unlimited, Blink, Heart N Soul, Birds of Paradise and The Disability Visibility Project.

Ultimately, the fact that disabled people’s access requirements have triggered so many articles says way more about the press than it does about disabled audiences. The real story should be about how inadequate access is across the board – but reporting this would create much less moral outrage than the idea that we take care of audiences and celebrate their diversity.

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