‘Access all areas’: including people with disabilities as artists as well audience

Accessibility in the arts is becoming more common. But there’s more we can do so that everyone benefits.

autistic boy playing guitar under guidance

One side effect of COVID-19 is that it has shown us how important culture and the arts are to our health, wellbeing and to our livelihoods.

“We have discovered there is far more to life than simply having a roof over your head and a job to go to during the day,” says Professorial Fellow in Disability and Inclusion, Professor Keith McVilly.

“Having a social life and a life connected to others is critical. And participation in the cultural life of our communities is one of the vital ways we develop and sustain relationships.”

But as restrictions ease and this becomes a reality again – albeit slightly altered – where does this leave people with autism or intellectual disabilities? Can everyone participate and benefit from cultural life equally?

Senior lecturer, researcher and registered music therapist Dr Grace Thompson suggests there is more we can do: “While we have progressed from institutionalisation where people were literally segregated, people can unfortunately still be locked out of community and cultural life because spaces are not accessible to them.”

The conversation around access may seem ‘active’. It has certainly gained traction in recent years and there are some fantastic initiatives supporting equal participation in the arts. The work of Arts Access Victoria, Ability Fest, gig buddies and sensory-friendly concerts are just some examples.

And whereas in the past the value of the arts was limited to individuals’ growth and development, via music and creative arts therapists, it’s now acknowledged that participation in cultural life is greater than that.

This isn’t to take away from the incredible one-to-one development of art and the individualised work of music therapists, notes Professor McVilly, “but about recognising that the arts is much more than individualised therapy. It’s therapy for the whole community because it brings us together; it changes us all and changes our communities.”

Reflecting this cultural shift too is the current Disability Royal Commission looking at what happens when people with disabilities are segregated and not routinely able to access community.

But the work is not done. “Attention on accessibility must be ongoing,” says Dr Thompson, “because it keeps changing, and what it means in our community keeps changing.”

“We've had a lot of focus on physical access – making sure people can literally get into a venue. But we haven't improved accessibility to a great degree for folks who are neurodiverse or who have intellectual disabilities. That’s a different kind of access.”

There are sensory-friendly concerts and events that look at the environment more broadly than whether someone in a wheelchair has the right kind of bathroom or doorway. But our understanding around accessibility must continue to be expanded. Multiple areas need attention.

Communication access is another area that is getting – and should continue to get – more attention, suggests Professor McVilly. “Building up the skillsets of the wider community to be welcoming, and indeed, not scared of someone who turns up with an electronic communications board or a picture symbol board. Some of it is as basic as that.”

Then there is the other side of this discussion: performance. While there’s been a lot of attention on audience participation, when it comes to those with disability being on stage, the picture is murkier.

“There's more participation in things like dance and theatre than there is in music. And within music, there's more participation in singing than there is in playing instruments,” says Dr Thompson.

Some of this comes down to practical reasons – instrumental music takes longer to master than some other performance-based arts, for example. But it’s also about how we think and talk about disability in the arts.

This calls for critical thinking – asking why many musicians who have a disability don’t include it in their personal narrative? Why is a disabled identity perhaps something the performer doesn't want to share? What does this say about how comfortable or safe performers with disability might feel in our community? What does this say about how welcoming and inclusive our community might be? What does this mean for young people (including those with disability) in the audience?

Dr Thompson suggests having these conversations “can be illuminating for all of us, including folks with disabilities.” Because if the aim is for representation of society in both audience and performers – as she believes it should be – “we need to make sure people with disability are not just seen as audience members, but that they can see themselves on stage too.”

Crucially, there also needs to be access to training. “We need to take a bottom-up approach. Go right back to the start and make sure children and young people have access to education and training in the creative arts.

“Nothing's going to change on stage if people don't have access to pursuing music excellence.”

Tackling this head on is the Specialist Certificate in Inclusive Music Teaching. Coordinated by Dr Thomson, the course focuses on giving music teachers – or musicians wanting to do so – the skills and confidence to teach a diverse range of learners.

As the only program of its kind in Australia, it’s an exciting step in this space. Because while being part of the audience is crucial, participation needs to be addressed from both ends.

“There’s a really important distinction to make in the discussion around access: that the right to music is not just the right to be a listener of music, but the right to be a maker of music.

“And many folks with disability have just as much interest and just as much aptitude for music as anybody else in the general population.”

Of course, when we make both the stage and the crowd equally accessible, this address both aspects of participation, and we all win. “Access to culture and the arts is about connectivity to the wider fabric of society. The value is that it bridges the great divide.”

To find out more about the Specialist Certificate in Inclusive Music Teaching, visit the website and look out for our next feature where we delve further into the course.

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