“When approaching this subject, people are often fearful of getting it wrong. But they are also fearful of speaking to people with that actual disability. This leads to costly mistakes.”
Emily Noakes, access officer at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall, highlights one of the issues organisations face when they aim to improve access. Some are inhibited; others don’t know where to start.
To help raise awareness of these issues, the Nottinghamshire Carers Association runs an award scheme, a Carer Friendly Organisation Quality Mark that venues can earn and which signals they have made successful efforts to widen access in all its forms.
The Theatre Royal recently won this award after setting up several measures that promote inclusivity and awareness about people who require special amenities and carers.
“Disabilities may not always be visible, that is why it is important to listen. We had a focus group of people who were less ambulant, deaf and partially sighted while drawing up the plans for improving the accessibility features. Their inputs come from a perspective that is unique and made our improvements the best they could be,” Noakes adds.
There are several things that make the lives of carers and people with carers easier, which are often subtle accommodations.
“Simple things like having a shelf or a mirror in a toilet enable someone with a stoma bag to change and use the facility. Having free tickets for carers, familiarisation documents about the venue and sign language performances are a few of the things we do at the theatre,” Noakes says.
She also works with individuals with dementia and conversations with them led to creating flyers on matte paper as opposed to the shiny paper which was used until now, as it would help them read the content with more ease.
“Putting up information about disabilities and facilities for carers as part of their mainstream literature would serve the two-fold purpose of educating the public while also reaching individuals who might not classify themselves as ‘disabled’ or want to associate with having a special need,” Noakes says.
Daniel Bottomore, house manager at the Theatre Royal, says the staff has more than 10 training sessions per year. Dementia Friends, Parkinson’s Talks, ASD Awareness, Deaf Awareness, Sighted Guide, Equality and Inclusion Training are some of the courses that have been covered.
Daniel also has Severe Movement Disorder, which causes involuntary movements. He has received great support from the theatre team to accommodate his needs as a staff member.
“I find it easier to work standing, so they have provided me with a standing desk as well as voice-activated software that enables me to dictate and have written content read out to me. I am also allowed to work from home most of the week and take rest breaks when needed.”
Adult changing rooms are another facility set up for visitors and their carers, alongside adapted toilets and hoists after feedback from individuals who explained that it was quite stressful to sit in discomfort for a whole show if they couldn’t reach the toilet in time.
There has been a radical increase in the number of visitors after installing the facilities, Noakes adds. People have also contacted them via Facebook and email to let them know how much the changes have helped.
The main criteria for the award is for the staff at a venue to undergo the carer awareness training, have resources and signposting material up and accessible facilities for both guests and carers.
“The work that the theatre have done by listening to their customers and adapting their services as they learn more is a great example of best practice for other arts organisations,” says Elizabeth Choo, community engagement worker at Nottinghamshire Carers Association which organises the awards.
Several art and entertainment venues across the county are now equipped with changing places toilets, including Djanogly Community Leisure Centre, Forest Recreation Ground and Nottingham Contemporary. There is a map listing the places on the city council website.
Back at the Theatre Royal, the team has also introduced relaxed performances, an initiative to enable guests to be more comfortable during the show. The lights are not dimmed fully, the doors are kept open, and people are free to exit and enter the hall throughout.
Cameras are usually not allowed in the theatre, but there are guests who view the performance through iPads which are allowed during these shows.
“There are also members of the audience who get anxious in crowds and make involuntary movements and noises. Relaxed performances accommodate and embrace these quirks. This is an experience they probably would not have had under other circumstances,” Karen Truswell, supervisor and duty manager at the Theatre Royal says.
“I remember one lad who gets anxious in crowds and always shied away from being touched. I saw him during another show and he just came up to me and gave me a big hug. Moments like this make me feel like every day here is worth it,” she adds.
Looking at prospective developments in this area, Elizabeth Choo says it is really important for organisations to become more aware and knowledgeable about conditions that are invisible, such as autism, sensory processing issues and mental health problems.
Daniel adds: “I don’t think an organisation should exclude anyone because their needs are different to that of the general populace. We live in an age when everyone deserves access to what they need and the arts should reflect that.”