Access Needs: Lessons Learned

To assess the quality and success in our projects, we’re writing a series of blog posts exploring some of the key learnings from CRIPtic 2021. We want to reflect on our experiences and what we’ve achieved, identify areas for our own growth, and (hopefully) be of use to other projects carrying out similar plans. Out first learning is around access needs.

CRIPtic is a deaf and disabled-led organisation. With that comes a recognition that everyone involved has their own access requirements for engaging with the project.  Everyone faces different impairment-related limitations and societal barriers that will impact them during parts of the programme. We felt very conscious of our responsibility to adequately support everyone involved in the project.

Managing the access needs of people involved

When we thought of ‘everyone involved’ we considered performers, mentors, workshop leaders, access workers, and we definitely did our best to create a supportive, accessible culture. There are things we could have done far better, including:

 – While we requested access riders at the outset, we should have scheduled a discussion with everyone at the outset. This should have been followed by a discussion part-way to explore people’s needs and how they were being met

 – Our team communicates in a very email-heavy manner, reflecting access needs within the CRIPtic team. This didn’t work well for all the Deaf signers on the project. We should have ensured that we had another channel of communication open in BSL far more regularly than we did

 – There were times where we struggled with organisation, which reflected badly on the access requirements of people involved. This was our first development programme and we hadn’t been prepared for the workload involved, which meant that there was slippage on some of our projects

Managing our approach to access

The approach we took to access was that if there were ways that money could reduce barriers people faced and enable them to perform at their best, we would use it. We took this commitment very seriously, and there were certainly some excellent impacts. This approach allowed us to go beyond the traditional model of access and fund what people needed to do their best work. However, this approach had an unexpected downside – that it didn’t help people in the long run. E.g. by being willing to pay for a full-time access worker or BSL interpreter for someone, we supported them in being involved in the project. However, it might have been more valuable to support those people to apply to Access to Work so they could secure funding to pay for an access worker in an ongoing way.

Our own needs

This is the area where we managed access the worst. As a team with varying access needs, but some quite significant ones, the direction I (Jamie) set for the organisation was one in which I led. I very quickly fell into unpaid work (I worked far more than there was budget to pay me for), and into excessive work. I could see slippage in projects if I didn’t do the work myself, and therefore I pushed myself harder and harder to do that, ignoring my own access needs.

To some extent I knew that I was ignoring my own needs – but it felt necessary. I couldn’t see that this was an issue beyond the impact that it had on me. However, I slowly realised that you cannot call a project accessible if you are not making it accessible to yourself. 

The problem is that in the arts, and especially the disability arts, there is so much more to do than can be done. It’s easy to slip into a mind-set where you feel that you have to do it all yourself. This is actively dangerous when building an organisation.

Organisational Culture

Organisational culture follows on from the leadership. My behaviour risked sending the following messages:

a) It is the correct, good, and desirable thing to be working 6-7 days a week on a project

b) When asked how you are, it is good to be able to say “exhausted and overworked” because it demonstrates your commitment to your project

c) Only working the hours you’re paid for is lazy, and if you really believed in the project, you would be working lots of unpaid hours also

d) It is selfish to try and meet your own access needs, and doing so demonstrates that you are putting yourself above the value of the project

None of those are things I believe – and they’re certainly not messages I was trying to send. However, whatever my words were, that was what my behaviour said. As a result, there was no way I could describe my practice as accessible. It wasn’t. I was actively ignoring one person’s access needs.

Coming away I feel aware of ways I need to develop my community and practice better, to reflect having a balanced life, a willingness to let deadlines slip when they need to, and to be careful what I say, regardless of what I do.

Overall Access

However, considering the project overall, which brought together 33 deaf and disabled people (not including our audiences) and an access team of 20 people, we did well. We had a diverse range of deaf and disabled people involved in our projects, we had a significant number of Deaf signers involved, and we worked with far more people than we intended.

There will be ways in which we could have delivered better for access for everyone. What we’ve really learned comes back to our own access needs and capacity. If we take on more work than those allow, then access slips away from our project immediately.