CRIPtic meets Jess Thom: ‘Creativity can be a catalyst for change’
For deaf and disabled creatives working in the arts, it’s easier to produce art which is accessible to ourselves, with access bolted on to the end. Rather than thinking about how our work can be created with British Sign Language (BSL) at the very beginning of the process, for example, the question is often how the work can be translated into BSL. When it comes to making art, access needs to be right at the heart of everything we do. Yet in order to do that, the idea of what is meant by integrated and creative access and what that looks like needs to be well understood, so CRIPtic invited writer and artist Jess Thom of Touretteshero to talk about that very subject.
“I mainly became a performer because I found it difficult to be in an audience,” Jess tells us, “and so I started to occupy the only seat in the house I knew I wouldn’t be asked to leave, which was onstage.”
It was 11 years ago that Jess set up Touretteshero, a community interest company which, since then, has gone on to produce two theatre shows in the form of the comedy play Backstage in Biscuitland, and an adaptation of Not I by Samuel Beckett. Neurodiversity was explored in both of the productions.
“I do believe that you shouldn’t have to make shows just to feel safe in a theatre,” Jess explains, “and part of what I understand access to be is audience care and thinking about taking labour away from disabled people.”
After all, Jess follows the social model of disability, which proposes that “what makes us disabled people is a failure to consider [the] diversity of body and mind when the world is set up”. In other words, it isn’t a person’s condition or impairment which disables them, rather society’s attitudes and inaccessible infrastructure.
It’s why the comedian believes accessible theatre should create no new barriers for disabled people. “By considering a broad range of bodies, minds and experiences,” Jess says, “whenever we’re making something new, whether that’s a piece of art, or a piece of marketing or how a space is being laid out, we have offered the opportunity to create less disabling spaces, systems and attitudes.”
However, one disabled person’s access requirements could be a barrier for someone else, as Jess explains: “That definitely can happen. I think that also I feel like disabled people are really good at sharing and negotiating space when that’s well supported. I think creating environments where we can move things around definitely is one way of making that negotiation easier.
“So adjustments [are] powerful, but we have to be alert and alive to what adjustments we’re making, and whether we’re contributing to ideas that might be damaging to other people, or ourselves or our wellbeing,” she continues. “[It’s] about how we can draw on the solidarity and experience of others to make sure that we’re making the right adjustments.”
In her conversation with us, Jess offers up several examples to illustrate just how impactful making reasonable adjustments can be to disabled audience members. She mentions the West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was an experience which left her “flabbergasted”.
“[I was] having to do like six hours’ worth of phone calls and emails to try and get three reasonable adjustments. The one that was the most difficult was the pre-show announcement,” Jess recalls. “They told me it was absolutely impossible for them to make a pre-show announcement without interrupting their production – totally impossible.
“I went to that production, not knowing if that reasonable adjustment would be met. So I was quite surprised to find out, given how impossible it was for them to make the announcement, that the whole show started in Kings Cross station with announcements being made over the tannoy.
“And there was a beautiful way to incorporate this, they had a gift, in terms of how easy it would be within this piece of work, but inflexibility meant this was missed.
She continues: “So I suppose it’s about thinking about the most generous way that you can share that information, and taking a multi-sensory approach.”
Even if a company considers such a perspective to producing their art, and embeds access in their work, Jess stresses that that doesn’t allow for you to reject any individual requests for reasonable adjustments to the show. “[It] doesn’t mean if somebody says, ‘I need to do this’, that you suddenly be like, ‘oh, well no, I’ve, I’ve covered my access responsibilities,” she says. “Being responsive is still really important.”
Not only that, Jess adds, but understanding that others may benefit from a particular access provision too. “I suppose it’s really important that those access requirements work for the audience who relies on them, but it’s also worth making sure that you’re not limiting who might utilise them, and that the invitation is wide.
“We at Touretteshero call that idea ‘access without judgement’,” Jess explains, “so the idea that we will provide access and explain what it is, without an assumption or judgement about who or how someone might utilise that.”
Alongside keeping disabled audience members happy, Jess also believes that creativity can be a catalyst for change.
“I think this is relevant whether or not your work is explicitly political or explicitly about the experience of being a disabled person. By modelling access embedded in creative ways, we are contributing to disability culture and challenging ideas around what access is or can be.
“That change has amazing potential individually and collectively,” she concludes.
by Liam O’Dell