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7 months ago · · Typical

In Conversation with Shape Arts: Accessibility Considerations for Creative and Cultural Organisations

Tell us about your organisation

Shape Arts is a disability-led arts organisation working to remove barriers to creative excellence for disabled people by providing opportunities for artists, training cultural institutions to be more open to disabled people, developing pioneering heritage projects, and through running participatory arts and development programmes. We’re based in London and have been operating since 1976, when the charity was founded by Gina Levete MBE with funding from the Gulbenkian Foundation.

Today, we are an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation chaired by artist and founder of the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive Tony Heaton OBE, and led by CEO and Artistic Director David Hevey.

The foundation of all our work is the Social Model of Disability, which was developed by disabled people to counter the more commonly encountered Medical Model. The Social Model holds that a person isn’t ‘disabled’ because of their impairment, health condition, or the ways in which they may differ from what is commonly considered the medical ‘norm;’ rather it is the physical and attitudinal barriers in society – prejudice, lack of access adjustments and systemic exclusion, that disable people.

Why is accessibility important?

Accessibility, which we consider from both the perspective of the artist and the audience, is important for ensuring an equitable cultural landscape, where everyone has access to creativity in all its forms, regardless of their individual needs or background. Not only is this an ethical commitment to improving inclusivity in our sector and across society, but it’s also a method by which we can reach wider, more diverse audiences and tell stories that may otherwise be overlooked, and risk being forgotten.

For cultural organisations and funders, a commitment to accessibility then is not just about creating a fair and welcoming working environment for staff, artists, and audiences, but it can also lead to an uptick in the size of your audience which has further benefits for the number of people you’re able to support and the ways in which you can do so.

How can you help organisations?

In addition to the many resources we publish online, which tackle things like accessible event planning, embedding creative access, and commissioning disabled artists, we also support organisations through consultation and partnerships. Working with other arts organisations to develop their own strands of accessible commissioning and production, be it through establishing open calls for disabled artists or policies for accessible showcasing, also provides us with a new network through which to recruit new artists and support those we already work with. These mutually beneficial relationships are a cornerstone of our work and help us to meet our organisational aims of increasing accessibility and attitudes towards disability throughout the sector.

We also offer formal Disability Equality Training through our associates at Goss Consultancy who, over the years, have provided sessions for a wide range of organisations.

What are the most popular topics you get asked about?

Be it artists or organisations, we most frequently receive enquiries from people looking to open up their programmes to more disabled artists and audiences. Generally, this is through the establishment of new programme areas, such as a recurring opportunity specifically for disabled artists or programming an event that has accessibility embedded from start to finish. Because we work to the Social Model of Disability, we rarely approach enquiries like this in an impairment-focused sense, meaning we try to work with partners to think about access in as wide and creative a way as possible, leading to many innovative and exciting approaches that we go on to share with others in our network.

When it comes to artists, beyond our own annual creative programme, we often support individual projects and the development of careers through one-on-one mentoring and advice sessions focused on things like creative access, managing work as a disabled freelancer, and navigating funding structures and methods to scale up creative work.

Do you have any processes you follow around accessibility?

The key process we follow when it comes to accessibility is considering it from the very start of a production or planning process. Often, accessibility is only considered at the end stage of a project, meaning for disabled audiences and artists it feels tacked-on and underfunded, undermining the organisers’ initial good intentions. It is only when access is prioritised in this way that ‘good’ access is viable, because it filters through into all decisions, whether creative or logistical.

As a practical example, this might look like designing accessible open calls that provide alternative formats of information as well as means for applicants to submit in formats accessible to them, like audio or video. It could also involve setting aside funds to support applicants with the application process itself by contracting a support worker to help with the admin. We would then cater for each party’s access needs (including any staff) throughout the production process by building in ongoing space and time for conversation about access needs as they change and fluctuate throughout the duration of a collaboration. And when it comes to the publication or sharing of a project, things like audience access – offering BSL translation, live captioning, tactile models, audio description, and accessibly designed print materials, for example – are considered from as early in the planning process as possible, to ensure budget and staff time are factored into the provision of good practice.

We develop an approach at Shape that we call ‘access curation,’ which by its nature makes it hard to say there are any hard and fast rules when it comes to accessibility. We believe that access can be as much a creative tool as a practical one, and that artists and organisations should feel empowered to use an attention and commitment to accessibility as an opportunity to pioneer and innovate. To this end, we take each new project as it comes, and through starting these conversations right away are able to design an individual approach that takes into account things like available budget, location, and intended audiences.

What is something simple that people can do today to make their content more accessible?

When it comes to digital content, there are a handful of basic things that anybody could do to improve the accessibility of what they share online. From captioning spoken content to writing image descriptions and alt-texts, the tools and infrastructure to embed access online are more widely available today than ever before.

Throughout the pandemic, we saw an increase in the number of individuals and organisations making these changes to their policies around digital content, which is an improvement we’re excited about, but often in focusing on the small things it’s easy to overlook the bigger elements of access. The visual design of materials, for example, can signal to audiences whether or not you have properly considered accessibility before they even reach your captions or image descriptions. Accessible design is an exciting and ever-evolving field, and there’s plenty of online resources to find out more to improve your online output.

Similarly, in the language you use, you can avoid red flags and let people know that you’re committed to improving the accessibility of your work by things as simple as the words you choose. Saying ‘disabled people’ instead of ‘people with disabilities,’ which is in line with the Social Model of Disability, is an example of this in practice, and tells people who encounter your work that you’ve engaged with the work of disabled activists and listened to your disabled users about the things that are important to them.

What top tips do you have for accessibility?

There are no black and white rules when it comes to access. Once you begin the work of improving the accessibility of the content you create, you will quickly realise that often one person’s access needs may be in direct conflict with another’s. This is why the most important rule of thumb when it comes to working with accessibility in mind is that you will never create something that is one hundred percent accessible: if you see this claim made, you can safely assume it’s misguided.

The point of embedding accessibility is not to achieve the impossible and always make everyone happy. If you’re making this commitment with this goal in mind, you will almost certainly fail to reach your goal. ‘Good practice’ when it comes to accessibility fundamentally comes down to transparency, honesty, and listening to your users. It’s only through paying attention to the needs of the disabled people you work with that you will establish working systems that successfully provide them access to the work you create.

If you’d like more information about any of the topics in this article, you can visit the Shape Arts website.

If you’d like to have a discussion with our Digital Accessibility Tech Champion about embedding accessibility into your organisation, you can book a 1-2-1 using the form on our Ask a Tech Champion page here.

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