[Column] Shona Louise talks Accessibility in Theatres

Covid-19 has been in our lives for almost a year now, changing our social interactions and shutting down our theatres. We’re finding ourselves in such a unique position of being off stage for an extended period and we’re all itching to get back. Well, I am for the most part. As a disabled theatre fan I am eager to have my first show back in a theatre, but I am dreading going back to the inaccessibility I faced both as an audience member and as a theatre photographer in this industry. I’d hope we’d use this time off stage to improve things, to take a step back and see what more we could be doing but events over the last couple of months have proven otherwise.

As a disabled theatre fan I am eager to have my first show back in a theatre, but I am dreading going back to the inaccessibility I faced both as an audience member and as a theatre photographer in this industry.

As soon as theatres in the UK began reopening myself and others could see that new rules and guidelines were likely to affect disabled audience members. The pilot test at The Palladium Theatre and plans at others revealed issues such as queuing for extended periods, one way systems and an even more reduced choice of accessibility seating, all barriers that were already adding to the difficulties disabled people face when going to the theatre. On top of this, despite online theatre seemingly making work for disabled actors more accessible, we weren’t seeing people hiring them. We had this opportunity where so many of the physical barriers had been removed, but we didn’t use it to showcase the talents that disabled artists can offer. Financially everyone in theatre has been hit hard but for disabled people who statistically have more living costs, this would have had even more of an affect.

Throughout lockdown I’ve seen that a few theatres have announced they are using this time to renovate, and I reached out to a couple to ask about whether this includes accessibility improvements but have yet to receive a single response back. Again, one of my biggest fears is that we will have wasted this unique amount of off-stage time, an opportunity to take a step back and adjust how we operate. This fear also came to life when I tried to book tickets for the Les Miserables Staged Concert in the West End.

Traditionally when booking shows with DMT (Delfont Mackintosh Theatres) via their access booking system you would have to ring up to secure the accessible tickets you needed, which is fraught with problems anyway as it assumes disabled people just have the time to sit on hold on the phone for an hour. You could discreetly join an online queue at work to book tickets but there is no discreet way of being on the phone, immediately this creates problems for those who are working. This time around however they simply asked access customers to fill in an online form and wait for someone to get back to us. We could only give 2 dates, compared to when you book on their website and can try as many as you like, and there was such little communication that in the end I lost all hope of getting tickets, especially when DMT announced the show as being sold out.

Many disabled customers took to Twitter, myself included, to find out what was going on but we were all ignored by DMT, whilst they continued answering others questions. In the end it took a social media storm for them to finally publish a statement to inform us that they were still working through all the access requests. They’d left us in the dark for so long though and in the end it took 3 days for me to be contacted to book. The experience brought me back down to earth with a bang, my life of fighting for an equal experience had restarted.

The experience brought me back down to earth with a bang, my life of fighting for an equal experience had restarted.

More recently an issue with Spotlight, a casting platform, came to light that reminded us all that disabled actors are still excluded and ignored in the industry. Spotlight gave people the opportunity when posting their castings to exclude disabled actors, to say that despite their legal responsibilities they couldn’t accept applications from disabled artists. Rightly so there was outrage. It was an ableist and excluding move that left disabled industry members feeling othered. Beyond that, giving a blanket option like this assumes that all disabled people are the same and have the same abilities. You cannot assume what a person can or cannot do, it is up to the disabled person to decide whether they’d be able to fulfil the role, not a stranger who hasn’t even met them. Spotlight’s responses left many of us feeling even more disappointed as they didn’t seem to grasp the severity of the incident.

Disabled actor Ruth Madeley (Teenage Dick, Years & Years) responded to this by starting the #DisabilityOptIn campaign to promote the importance of disabled creatives, and to encourage people to commit to support them too. She provided an environment for disabled creatives to share their experiences in a safe space as well, something that is so needed. I hope that casting directors, producers, writers and quite frankly the whole industry take a look at the campaign and discover just how much talent is out there, talent that shouldn’t be ignored.

We’ve a long way to go until disabled audience members and industry professionals are equal in this industry but I feel that the tide is beginning to change and people want something new and different now. Social media has given us all such a voice, making us harder to ignore. Theatres such as Theatre Royal Dury Lane, the oldest working theatre in London, renovating and improving their accessibility and the slow but exciting increase in disability representation is giving me hope. We need accountability and commitment though, disabled people need a voice and a seat at the table. It’s at that point that things will begin to change massively.

About Shona Louise : Shona Louise is a freelance writer, photographer and disability & theatre blogger. She has written for Metro, The Stage and The Independent, amongst other print and online publications, as well as writing a blog for 9 years. She campaigns for disability rights, including better accessibility and increased representation for disabled people within the theatre industry. She is also a published author in the book ‘Rife: Twenty-One Stories From Britain’s Youth’. www.shonalouise.com

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