Sharing learning: Birds of Paradise Theatre Company – personalised access statements

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Sharing learning: Birds of Paradise Theatre Company – personalised access statements



Dance performance
© Birds of Paradise, Purposeless Movements 2019. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

By Centre for Cultural Value

SUMMARY

In this series of learning case studies, cultural practitioners share their reflections and learning honestly, so others can learn from and build on their experience.

Here Mairi Taylor, Executive Producer of Birds of Paradise Theatre company, reflects on how they as a company learnt from their mistake of making assumptions about people's access needs and how they developed a company-wide, universal mechanism to ensure that it would never happen again.

You can read the full case study below or download the PDF document.

“If we couldn’t get it right, how were we going to tell other people how to? We knew we needed not just to admit and rectify our mistake, but to develop a company-wide, universal mechanism to ensure that it would never happen again.”
Mairi Taylor, Executive Producer, Birds of Paradise Theatre Company

What’s the story?

Here is a story about something that went wrong and that we learned from. In that sense it is not a complicated tale, it is a very simple and familiar narrative, the learning from which underpins a lot of what we now do.

Several years ago we were undertaking a ‘development week’ for a new production. As with all our work it involved a diverse group of people, disabled and non-disabled, some of whom had access requirements. The company worked hard to set up an accessible development week that was going to involve rehearsal room time and events for young people. At Birds of Paradise Theatre Company (BOP) we work hard to get access right; as a professional, disability-led theatre company it’s central to everything we do.

What’s more, it was a period of transition and change for the company with new staff coming in, and on this occasion, we let our assumptions get the better of us. We failed to provide the correct access provision for one of the actors. Our dear colleague was housed in a top-floor flat that they were unable to access. While we had put in a significant amount of effort to provide access for communication – British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters were involved throughout – we nevertheless had made assumptions about what this person needed specifically in terms of access to their accommodation for the week. Even though we had checked with colleagues who had worked with them before, we did not check directly with the person in case things had changed, and were not specific enough in our questions regarding access. This may seem like a simple mistake that was rectified, but it caused much frustration and embarrassment for all involved: if we couldn’t get it right how were we going to tell other people how to?

As disability equality trainers, BOP spends a lot of time explaining to people that simply knowing what a person’s ‘disability’ is does not give you the information you need on how to meet their needs and provide the appropriate services for that person. We use the Social Model of Disability which recognises that some people experience disabling barriers in society. We believe that by focusing on dismantling these barriers we are able to create more accessible environments and experiences.

What’s the learning?

Always ask, never assume. We have all heard this and it is something that we all forget in various ways in our working practices. In a busy theatre company, especially during production time, assumptions can be the undoing of the best planning. In our case, we knew we needed not just to admit and rectify our mistake, but to develop a company-wide, universal mechanism to ensure that it would never happen again.

We developed an access statement, which we ask everyone who works with us to complete. Our access statement is focused on dismantling barriers to activity and challenging assumptions of an individual’s needs and preferences. It does not ask details of their disability, or if they identify as disabled; we simply ask what they need in place to undertake their work. We provide everyone we work with an access-requirements form, including those who are non-disabled. You can download our version here to use as a template for your own organisation, as well as a specific version that we use for freelancers.

Our personalised access statement allows an individual to provide the information required to ensure they can fully realise their potential, and operate successfully within the structures of the required activity and/or role. It is the responsibility of the company to ensure that the right questions are asked to inform planning and delivery of activity. Our personalised access statements includes questions on specific access needs in a variety of key contexts:

  • Communication: e.g. if interpreters are required, preferred method of communication (e.g. email, phone calls, in person or online), preferred format (electronic &/or hard copy)
  • Physical and environmental factors: e.g. requires level access, accessible bathroom, or if certain lighting, sound or heating elements trigger sensory impairments.
  • Attending events or meetings: e.g. a personal assistant or support animal required to move around the space, seating in a certain location (near bathroom, for best pick-up for hearing loops).
  • Delivering at events / artistic practice: e.g. set timeframes for information, schedule requirements, time to familiarise with the space, resources needed to deliver the event.
  • Written reports, surveys, evaluations: e.g. preferred format for delivering information (not a lot of written information, screen reader compatibility).
  • Travel and transport: e.g. preferred form of transport, assistance/t required from service provider, preference of time to travel (outside of rush hour, time for breaks, recovery time), equipment they will bring with them.
  • Accommodation: e.g. room accessibility (e.g. level access, wet room, walk-in shower, visual or touch alarm system, room temperature control), equipment within the room, (shower seat, host, grab rails, basic kitchen facilities).
  • Personal assistance: e.g. if/when they need a personal assistant, if they require travel and accommodation.
  • Additional information: e.g. including anything that is not already covered that they think it would be helpful for Birds of Paradise to know or provide (how these needs may fluctuate/change).

It is important to recognise that while an individual’s impairment or health condition may not change over the years, how disabled they are may change. This is why we do not make assumptions about people we have worked with before, and provide all those with whom we work with an access statement, whether or not they are new to us as a company. Our personalised access statements can be updated as required and by sending it out to everyone we work with, we ensure that even people who might not have raised their access requirements with us prior to that point are given an opportunity to update us on their personal situation.

Resources cited in case study

In addition to the personalised access statement template and the access statement for freelancers, you can find further access resources on the BOP website, including:

Additional information

Birds of Paradise Theatre Company was formally constituted as a company limited by guarantee and as a registered charity in 1993, becoming Scotland’s first touring theatre company employing disabled and non-disabled actors. A disability-led company, many original aims behind the formation of the company are still familiar to Birds of Paradise today: to employ disabled and non-disabled actors and other theatre professionals, to commission new work, to work in partnership with other organisations at home and abroad, to create positive images of inclusion and to encourage participation in the arts. For more details visit boptheatre.co.uk

Case study written and provided by: Mairi Taylor, Executive Producer, Birds of Paradise Theatre Company

(Edited by: Emma McDowell, University of Leeds on behalf of the Centre for Cultural Value)

Published: 2021
Resource type: Case studies