‘Some days it feels like I’m a starving animal, happy to accept the tiniest crumbs someone is willing to throw my way’: Blind critic Olivia Muscat calls for a total rethink of our ideas about inclusion
As someone who is blind, it becomes really easy to accept the bare minimum. The bare minimum of access, the bare minimum of inclusion, the bare minimum of respect. It sounds kind of bleak. Because it is.
Some days it feels like I’m a starving animal, happy to accept the tiniest crumbs someone is willing to throw my way. Not always, but definitely sometimes. Sometimes, I’m thrilled about the smallest steps to accommodate my access needs. And then I think about it and realise that what was done was really easy and probably didn’t require the level of gratitude I bestowed. They could’ve done so much more.
Last month, I attended a workshop at Malthouse Theatre that was focused on community engagement for Blind and Vision Impaired (VI) people in performance and the arts more broadly, hosted by Description Victoria. It wasn’t aimed at me, and I am already aware of all the issues discussed. But it was interesting none the less, and I’m very glad I went.
All Blind and VI people are unique, and there is no universal access solution. But there are many simple things that companies, organisations and venues can put in place to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities to experience the array of performances, exhibitions and other events that our city has to offer.
For as long as audio description (AD) has been available in Melbourne, which as far as I can glean has not been for that long in the grand scheme of things, it has been provided by Vision Australia volunteers. It’s provided at varying levels of quality for large scale productions or shows put on by the larger, better known companies, usually once, or maybe twice during a show’s run. In the case of the Melbourne Theatre Company, AD is offered pretty consistently on a Tuesday evening and Saturday matinee, with a tactile tour offered before the Saturday show.
We can view this in a couple of different ways. One view, which I held for a long time, is that it’s fantastic that the service exists and I should be grateful and not complain. What choice do I have? Another, which was discussed at the workshop, is that that this is the very bare minimum we should expect, and that the way we view access and inclusion needs a complete redesign.
Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful that these volunteers give up their time and I appreciate their efforts. But when I have to put up with a describer talking over dialogue, or laughing instead of describing, or censoring visuals they think are inappropriate, I won’t go out of my way to attend an AD show. Also, Tuesday evenings at 6.30pm or Saturday afternoons at 2pm are just not my preferred times to be going to the theatre. I honestly believe that venues and organisations, and non-disabled people generally, think that disabled people don’t go out late at night. This is not, in fact, true.
The concept of trust was broached by every single speaker at the workshop. Each talked about personal experiences that made them either gain or lose trust in an organisation or venue. I’d never thought about it in those particular terms, but it is entirely true. If a venue does something as small as offering me a water bowl for my dog, my trust in them grows significantly. I feel welcome and included, and not like an unwanted burden, and the chances I’ll return in the future are pretty high. As I said above, I am very grateful for the tiniest things.
On the other hand, if I can’t access a venue’s website to find information about a performance, or the staff are completely unaware of how to show basic human decency to a person with a disability, they lose my trust quickly and I probably won’t rush to attend anything else they’re putting on. I’ll probably warn a good number of other Blind people against it as well. I have a very basic understanding of the way business works, but even my limited knowledge says that losing customers is bad. Right?
In order to build trust, organisations need to go above and beyond what is currently considered acceptable. Start by offering a high-quality audio description. That’s a fantastic initiative. It’s also the most basic level of accessibility for someone who is Blind or has low vision. Cool. Again, if we attend your show, we might know what is going on visually, but we also have to get there. Even more basically, we need to be aware that you’re offering this service. If your website is inaccessible or you don’t advertise the service somewhere that people might actually find it, how is anyone supposed to know?
A representative at the workshop, from an organisation that I won’t name, mentioned that her organisation offered AD for an exhibition but didn’t offer it again because only a couple of people used the service. I receive the email newsletter from this organisation, and not once have I seen audio description or audio tours mentioned. I can’t go if I don’t know it’s on.
It may take some time to build up the trust and the audience when a service is new, but if you persist, we will come. Seriously, we will. We’re just a little too used to services and opportunities being pulled out from under our feet. And if you think your particular performance or event wouldn’t be interesting to a Blind or VI person, you are probably wrong. We are all interested in different things, just like regular people.
Even if the particular performance is only interesting to one Blind or VI person, doesn’t that person deserve the right to attend and experience it as fully as possible?
What’s offered in terms of access and inclusion is so very basic. Instead of just offering AD, venues need to consider how exhausting it can be for people with disabilities to just get themselves out of the house and to an event, and do everything they can to make the experience less taxing and more welcoming. Here are some suggestions: staff with disability and access training, well-lit venues, places to toilet service dogs, even a staff member to meet people at a nearby public transport point and make sure they can get to and around the venue safely and quickly.
Things as simple as adding information about things like nearby landmarks, good drop off points for taxis or good places to meet friends can take an enormous amount of stress out of a Blind or VI person’s day. It doesn’t take much to add that information to a website, but it makes my anxiety levels go down by about 389 per cent. And they’re simple adjustments that benefit all patrons, not just the disabled ones.
Telling a Blind or VI person that they shouldn’t come to your venue unless they are accompanied by a carer or friend is not the “easy” solution. (This isn’t a hypothetical, it happens.) Sometimes, a lot of the time, we want to, or have to, attend things alone. I am constantly floored by the how many people are surprised that I go out on my own. Access needs to be incorporated in every aspect of a performance or exhibition, not just on the main attraction. Getting to a venue, moving around the venue, being able to access important facilities, such as bathrooms, food and wine, are all vital aspects of access and inclusion.
The easy solution is to consult the communities you need to include, to listen to their needs and suggestions and then to put them in place. It does no good to assume the best ways to include a community without any input from the community itself. That is, to put to baldly, just as ableist as making no attempt at access and inclusion at all. And there are many Blind and VI people who are willing to discuss everything from web accessibility to guide dog etiquette.
Another important issue that was touched on by every speaker, and which is possibly the most interesting to me personally, is the idea of inclusion at all levels, not just audience members and patrons. Many of the speakers at the workshop mentioned that they know it is scary for non-disabled people to talk to, and engage with Blind people. This is a sad reality. So many people just do not know what to do when confronted with a disabled person.
If arts organisations begin to employ people with a disability at all levels, it makes an anormous difference. And it would help to dispel the strange myth that disabled people don’t have a place in the arts beyond being somebody’s inspiration fodder. Not to mention the fact that if Blind and VI people are employees, they can be consulted on matters of accessibility and can often offer practical and simple solutions, or suggest somebody else who can.
And then there is the issue of artists with a disability.
When I say all areas of a venue need to be accessible, I really do mean all areas. An artist or performer, or several artists and performers, will be using backstage areas or other areas not open to the public, offices for example. It is already a struggle to be taken seriously and accommodated as a disabled artist. We shouldn’t have to put up with poor or zero access to a work space. Consult artists with a disability, find out what works, and act on it.
I have barely begun to scratch the surface of what was covered at the workshop. But the main message is that when it comes to the arts, Blind and Vision Impaired audiences and artists deserve a lot more than we are currently given. More can be done, and more needs to be done, to ensure that all people in all communities have full access to the things they love. The arts are not there simply to enrich the lives of those who can access them without any adjustments. The arts are for everyone. And I’m done with shutting up and accepting the bare minimum.