We were pretty excited when we were asked to be on a panel at Breaking Down the Barriers: The Arts, Disability and Change conference at The Garage, Norwich. For starters no one had ever asked us to be on a panel before, and for those of you who know us, you will know we do love to talk- especially about the work of Frozen Light. We were also chuffed to be asked because this was a disability arts conference which had thought to try and include the voice of people with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD). We were excited that we had the opportunity to be on a panel and to be advocates for our audiences with PMLD, a community of people who are often forgotten in arts diversity and access conferences.
For me the conference started a few days before with Adam Taylor’s (chief exec of The Garage) publication of a blog entitled Conferences over Consultancy. Inspired. It was a really honest post claiming The Garage wasn’t a leading expert in access and that wasn’t why they were holding this conference. They were holding it because they want to learn from real people, people actually living this experience, and not only in the arts but other sectors- people trying to make things more accessible and leading by example. Yes, he could have paid a consultant hundreds of pounds to tell him what to do but where is the learning, and the investment? I really applaud his approach and couldn’t wait for the day.
For starters I was really impressed by the field leaders The Garage and co-hosts The Hub had managed to get to the event. As summed up by Jamie Beddard (Agent for Change at The New Wolsey) “no mean feat to get such a varied and illustrious crowd to Norwich for 10am.” And yes, I think that is a valid point. Often Norwich is too far away and not important enough for people to visit and it really felt like The Garage had managed to provide an offer that was too good to refuse. It was also brilliant to see the amount of local participants that were representing the arts in Norwich and its desire to make itself more accessible. I think Norwich came off as a pretty darn exciting place to be based.
The day was started with a provocation from the always wonderfully articulate and inspiring Jess Thom (you can watch it here on youtube). It then went to Jo Verrent and Becky Danns (from Unlimited) to present their postcards to the future. What an idea! Postcards from a world that is truly diverse, accessible and inclusive, a world I would really like to live in. But, as the conference proved, we have a long way to go. But I like to think that this conference was another great step on that journey.
The day then split into panel discussions covering topics including how organisations could work successfully with disabled artists and examining what taking part looks like. There were then more informal open space breakout groups. The one we went to asked “Is learning disability art and culture the poor relation of disability art and culture within the arts?”
This open space was really interesting to me as I often feel like the voice of people with learning disabilities is the one missing from these conferences. But in reality, should this question have been a conference all to itself? People with learning disabilities face many similar challenges as people with physical disabilities and sensory impairments. They do however have an incredibly different lived experience and can face many more challenges in their lives. There is a wonderful annual conference by Creative Minds that looks at this issue and how actors and creatives with learning disabilities create high quality professional theatre and how it is valued within society. Unfortunately we missed it this year. But once again -do our audience with PMLD fit within that conversation?
So with all this on my brain we ate a fabulous lunch, provided by The Feed Norwich, (best vegan lunch I’ve ever had at a conference) and went into our panel discussion which focused on organisations who were already aiming to be accessible. On our panel was Matthew Piper, Access Manager from Norwich Theatre Royal, Helen Drury from Intu shopping malls, Matthew Lindley, Unity Theatre as Chair and us. Helen and Matthew Piper talked about audience and customer experience. What journey do people take when engaging with the theatre or a shopping mall and what they do to make that the most accessible and enjoyable experience possible? We then spoke about how we make our work accessible for audiences with PMLD and how we work with theatre venues on tour to ensure our audience is getting the best experience possible from booking a ticket through to the end of the show. We wanted to point out that although our work is relatively expensive for venues to programme due to our small audiences, that if they want to reach audiences with PMLD then this is a sacrifice they have to make. We also though, wanted to put the expense into context and explain that for our audience a trip to the theatre is expensive and I’m not really talking about tickets. Yes there is the outlay for the ticket but then there is the minibus or accessible taxi to get to the theatre, the additional care staff that are needed for the outing, the specialist equipment that is needed just so they can leave the house in the morning- the cost is not on the theatre makers and the venues alone. By a venue making that sacrifice they are providing an opportunity for people with PMLD to access the theatre, something many of our audience have never done before. We also, obviously, did a massive shout out to changing places as we think accessible toilets are very important!
The discussion was then opened up to the audience and I was a little surprised that no one really had any points to make. Maybe we had all been so clear and precise that there was nothing left to say! I just hoped that we had been good advocates for audiences with PMLD and that we did our small bit to get their needs spoken about. I left still feeling a little confused as to how our audience fit within the disability arts sector.
Our audience’s needs are so complex and as a group, people with PMLD are so invisible in society that I wonder if we need a conference to specifically discuss how we can make the arts more accessible for audiences with PMLD. How can we make their needs more visible in society and how can we encourage more artists to create work for this audience?
At conferences it can often feel like delegates are there to shout about their own projects, needs and desires (which is also what we do) and sometimes it feels like you hear everyones different issues as opposed to having conversations. What can be really tough is that everyone has such a valid fight to fight and with forever shrinking money and resources we are all desperate for our voices to be heard. Saying that since Breaking Down the Barriers has taken place we have already made a couple of great connections to develop new partnerships for the future.
Overall though a fascinating day in which I felt we made some new friends, had some challenging discussions and above all challenged ourselves and our thinking.
Co – Artistic Director, Frozen Light
PS: Throughout the day a manifesto was being drawn up from suggestions and points that delegates were making. This has been drawn together and has provided an exciting document full of points that can be actioned and comments that can provoke thought and discussion. This document is available online here and is worth a look at even if you didn’t attend the conference.