Green room: Is there enough provision for SEND students in theatre?4:00, 16th May 2016
Susan Elkin is a former English teacher, and is education and training editor at The Stage and author of So You Want to Work in Theatre?
Nearly all theatres comply with disability access legislation as far as their buildings allow – and theatres built after 1950 have long since taken ramps, space for wheelchairs and specialist lavatories in their stride.
As for theatrical content we now routinely have relaxed and autism friendly performances. British Sign Language interpretation or subtitles are usually available at certain performances and hearing loops are standard in many theatres. Producers and sponsors support audio description and set tours for blind people too.
This is all before you even start on the specialist companies such as Graeae, Oily Cart and Chickenshed (in 20 different locations) which offer carefully targeted shows and opportunities for SEND people to participate at many different levels. On top of that, theatre companies setting up education projects are carefully designing them for the inclusion of SEND students.
So, on balance I think the industry is probably doing as much as it can reasonably be expected to do for SEND students. Enormous efforts have been made in recent years and while, in a sense, enough is never enough, in another I think we have to remember that equality is for everyone.
SEND students represent – even on the most wide ranging assessment – 10% or less of the entire student population. They are, fortunately, a minority. Of course that doesn’t mean that their needs should ever be sold short but there is another 90% of the student population which also has needs and resources in the performing arts industries are finite as in all other areas of life.
Lucy Rix trained as a stage manager at Rose Bruford College, graduating in 1996. Lucy now runs the drama department at New College, Worcester, a special school for the visually impaired. She is also the stage manager for Pendley Shakespeare Festival in Hertfordshire.
Being a teacher of students with visual impairment and some with additional needs, I have become increasingly aware of how theatre is changing to become more accessible for young people with SEN and the ways companies are helping to bring theatre to life for those with particular needs.
For GCSE and A level drama students, it’s a requirement that students have access to live theatre performances. For my students we do this by visiting theatres where touch tours and audio description are offered for the performance. This gives my students a clear mental image of props, set and costume and how they are all used before they see the show. If they’re lucky they’ll meet some of the actors too – something which really helps with identifying characters’ voices later. The audio description is the final part of the picture which pulls everything together.
For students on the autistic spectrum, it’s also possible to see a performance in more ‘relaxed’ conditions, where house lighting is kept on and no-one frowns or tuts if you need to go out of the auditorium for a break.
Over the last few years, provision for SEND in theatre has developed – it may not be that everything is fully accessible just yet but it’s certainly getting there, with relaxed performances, captioned performances, audio description and touch tours to name the main offerings at present. Theatres and producers do seem to be taking note that audiences are changing and that theatre must change for them.
Holly Scott-Gardner is a student and blogger focusing on disability advocacy. Her aim is to improve the experiences of other disabled people through social change.
It’s a fact that there are disabled people in theatre, but are there enough of us? From campaigns that argue disabled roles should not be given to non-disabled actors, to children fighting for access to theatre groups, it’s clear that something has gone wrong.
As a child I desperately wanted to be allowed to act. Every year in primary school when the school play was announced I felt sick with anticipation, but my excitement was never justified. I’m blind, and this changed the way people thought I should participate.
I was given a role, but it was always extremely stagnant. I would walk on, announce the play and leave. Typically, that was the limit of my involvement. A blind person can’t dance or run across a stage, they thought. And so I never got the chance.
It’s not enough to say you are including a disabled child, that they are present in the room. If you are simply looking at a child with a disability and you know what they can do, this isn’t true inclusion. Disabled children can participate in theatre, whether that be through their school or an outside programme. But the provider must work with the child, rather than letting negative perceptions of disability influence them.
I have had many positive experiences in theatre. These all came from the provider and me working together to figure out how I could best participate. Once other people understood that I knew what I was capable of, things changed, and theatre became the positive experience it always should have been.
Richard Hayhow has spent many years promoting the creativity of young people with learning disabilities, particularly in special schools where he is using a unique approach to have a significant impact on children’s learning and development.
The simple answer to this is no. I’ve been working in SEND for 15 years as part of the work of the theatre company I run. I’ve seen many positive changes both in theatre provision in special schools and in the engagement of young people with learning disabilities in theatre. But there’s a long way to go: a simple statistic might help to illustrate.
As a result of research we did in 2013 we found out that in Birmingham there are 7,000 young people with learning disabilities. Only 5% of them are engaged in arts provision outside of school. It’s clear that this significant but generally invisible group of people aren’t getting what they deserve from the arts. We need to work with people with learning disabilities – not because of a box-ticking access agenda, but because it’s fundamental to the way we create art.
Smaller arts organisations are generally flexible and can create small but meaningful provision relatively easily. The challenges for larger organisations who can potentially make a bigger impact are many: less flexible because of internal structuring, they also face a huge task of embedding change across every area of their operations. And it doesn’t stop there: large organisations attracting a ‘mainstream’ audience may have to win over their audiences. Take relaxed performances for example – these can feel ghettoised, hidden away from the regular performances for fear of ‘scaring off’ the mainstream audience. Increasing the visibility of young people with learning disabilities in larger arts organisations is really about increasing their visibility in society as a whole.
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