Audio description, captions, BSL, building layouts, itineraries and sensory spaces: these are among a few of many access requirements individuals need to fully participate in everyday life. Access has always been important to me, working with SEN and vulnerable people leaves a resonating awareness at how others learn and navigate life.
However, I confess until last year, after participating on Rachel Bagshaw’s ‘Wellbeing in Making Theatre’ group hosted by RTYDS, I had rarely given my own requirements much thought. Not much is known about my hearing loss (I have 70-80% loss in my left ear) due to being adopted as a baby. The two theories are that my loss is either hereditary as my birth mother was Deaf or illness as I had scarlatina as a child. I was brought up in a hearing household with an amazing mum and dad and sassy twin sister. I was diagnosed as Deaf around eight years old and back then not much advice was given to my family other than be patient and don’t let your child play contact sports. I was given my first hearing aids at sixteen after an awful ear infection in my working ear, the doctor treating me was surprised none had been offered to me. Looking back, I feel sadness and a little anger over the lack of support to myself and my parents. I realise that this is the crux of ableism, that disabled people are very stoical and extremely good at adapting and getting on with life. This is so often taken for granted, leading individuals to believe that no additional support should be offered or explored. It becomes an afterthought. Growing up being surrounded by this ethos, led me to becoming a ‘put up and shut up’ kind of person who was desperate to be independent and not wanting to bother anyone. This might sound awfully familiar to a lot of individuals.
I always thought my access requirements were straightforward, captions please and don’t sit on my left side and over the last year, with the arts migrating to digital platforms, it was fantastic to see many wonderful ways to be inclusive and accessible all the time.
However, not all digital meetings or workshops accommodate access requirements. I’ve put together a few tips, tricks and advice that prove that access can be easy and straightforward to execute:
This sounds patronising however, it is the best approach. Start normalising the act of asking what people need in order to fully engage with a meeting or event. This immediately creates a safe environment where people – even if they don’t have access requirements – feel cared for and listened to, leading to a much better work environment. From a planning perspective it also gives plenty of notice to implement access provision and adjustments if they are required.
This is relatively easy to do. When introducing yourself make sure you say your name and describe what you look like e.g. ethnicity, age, hair colour, clothes. Then remember when speaking again ensure you state your name each time, that way blind, partially sighted or visually impaired individuals can place who is speaking. In addition, it is important to accompany PowerPoints or any screen sharing activity with a word document that describes what is being shared that is compatible with audio description software such as Dragon| Nuance UK or to audio describe it yourself.
I refer to sign language to encompass the many variety of sign languages that exist. In the UK, BSL is used the most but that’s not discounting other forms of sign language used in the UK e.g. Sign supported English, Makaton, international sign. First and foremost, ensure that you are using a qualified interpreter, you will know if they are qualified because they will have been verified by and work to the standards of the NRCPD (National Register of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People). Ensure good lighting and WiFi connection, otherwise information being relayed can got lost or misinterpreted. Lastly, always refer to the sign language user and never the interpreter. The interpreter is there to bridge the communication gap. Bear in mind you may need more than one interpreter for long meetings/workshops, the interpreters must also be spotlighted or pinned by the host allowing them to be easily visible, and always ask the individual if they have an interpreter they like working with.
There are so many ways to implement captioning into digital platforms now, making them accessible to everyone. The ideal every time is to employ a qualified speech-to-text reporter AKA palantypist/stenographer. You can find reporters via the NRCPD, the AVSTTR (Association of Speech-to-Text Reporters and the BIVR (British Institute of Verbatim Reporters). Like with sign language interpreters always ask if they have a preference on a reporter they regularly like to work with and that you may need more than one if the meeting/workshop is long. Alternatively, but less ideal, you can also use auto-captions a.k.a. closed captions. On Zoom they can be enabled via the settings or there are other sites you can use for a small fee such as Otter.ai. Just remember closed captions will struggle to work when individuals have speech impairments or strong accents.
Fatigue can be the biggest drain for any online meeting or workshops, this applies to all involved not just the participants who have access requirements. Make sure you add regular 10 – 15 minute comfort breaks to allow individuals to process information and to take some time away from their screens.
Lack of clarity can often confuse individuals with access requirements over breakout rooms, which are found in Zoom. Being clear on which rooms individuals are going to in advance is extremely important and avoid individuals feeling overwhelmed and therefore unable to fully participate. Always keep a host in the “main” Zoom space for individuals to return to if they cannot access their room. In addition, remember if you are using closed captions in your Zoom they will not work in breakout rooms, so ensure that those who need them are kept in the main room.
Preplanning and Documentation
Always plan your meetings and workshops with plenty of time to put in place access requirements e.g. booking interpreters or reporters etc.
Consider having documentation that describes an itinerary and content of the meeting/workshop to share with those who identify as neurodivergent or have hidden disabilities, such as autism/Asperger’s syndrome/dyslexia/dyspraxia. Use size 14 font size and use easy-to-read fonts such as Arial. Share these in advance to allow others to digest the information in their own time and to have a reference when participating in the workshop/meeting. It is also useful to share this with captioners and interpreters too, ensuring they will correctly communicate the information, names and any specific technical terms.
Zoom and other digital video platforms
When using digital platforms remember not everyone is used to navigating them. Consider having some time set aside to walk individuals through the platform with you, so they know the layout and what to expect. If this is not possible ensure that if there are new users to the platform that the technical aspects of platform are described at the start of the meeting.
Alternative platform to use other than Zoom could be:
- Google Meet – which has integrated closed captions and the same functionalities of Zoom
- Skype – similar functionalities of Zoom
- Riverside FM – used via Chrome, for small groups
Access to Work
A big response for access requirements is that it’s expensive or companies do not have the budget for it. In my opinion is there is always budget for it, there’s just lack of thought until companies realise that they require it to be called fully inclusive. This budget can come from the company’s own funds, or there is also the Access to Work (www.gov.uk) grant run by the government. Access to work is a publicly funded employment scheme that aims to support disabled people to start or stay in work. You can apply for it on the behalf on the individual as a company if they are a contracted worker for you or as an individual. The scheme covers all disabilities as well as mental health. If you are an arts or culture charity you can always add access requirements into the budget when applying for Art Council Funding.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Harri Marshall is a deaf director based in York. She has received training from the Young Vic, RTYDS and the Bristol Old Vic. Harri has an affinity for contemporary theatre including new writing, adaptation and verbatim theatre and has directed nine shows. She is an advocate for D/deaf and disabled creatives and is a self-proclaimed proactive busy body!
Royal National Institute of Blind People for more info on working with blind, partially sighted people or visually impaired individuals:
- Dragon| Nuance UK
- Accessibility matters | Nuance UK
- Theatre Audio Description FAQs – RNIB – See differently
NRCPD website for more information on interpreters, captioners and working with D/deaf/Deafblind individuals:
AVSTTR and BIVR website for more information on speech-to-text reporters:
- Home – The Association of Speech-to-Text Reporters (avsttr.org.uk)
- BIVR – British Institute of Verbatim Reporters
Information on Access to Work:
- Get support in work if you have a disability or health condition (Access to Work) – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
- Access to Work factsheet for employers – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
Information on general accessibility:
Information on Zoom: