New Work Network’s
‘No Budget Guide for Artists to Disability Access’

Commissioned by New Work Network
written by NWN Associate Ju Gosling

Artists frequently express the desire to make their events and work accessible to disabled people, but believe it is too expensive to do so. However, many of the most important ways to make an event or work accessible cost nothing but a little forethought and some effort.

This is fortunate because, in the 21st century, you should not expect to receive a ‘special grant’ for providing disability access, and working without a ‘special grant’ is not an excuse for holding an inaccessible event. Disabled access needs to be covered as part of your overall grant funding, and it is your responsibility to include an access budget if this is required to make the work accessible. Whether or not you have funding, though, you still need to think about access (see part 1 for details of your legal obligations).

However, the benefits of making your events accessible are obvious; your audience will increase. Since most people go out with friends, enabling just one more disabled person to attend can result in a whole extra group of people seeing your work. You will also meet a lot of interesting artists that you would otherwise miss the opportunity to connect with.

The difference between making a loss and breaking even is ultimately the price of one ticket, so there is an economic argument for increasing access — it is likely to cost you more to do nothing than to make your work accessible. Or you might just think it’s the right thing to do, and want to be part of the solution rather than the problem. Either way, this Guide is here to help you. Read on below, or click here to download a Word version.


1) What does the law say?
2) Who are disabled people?
3) Attitude is everything
4) A few words on language
5) Knowledge is power
6) Advertising and publicity
7) Signage
8) External areas
9) Labeling exhibits
10) Audio description
11) Accommodating people with hearing impairments
12) Accommodating people with mobility needs
13) Toilets
14) Dogs, flash photography and some other things you might not have thought about
15) Alternative ways of accessing your work
16) Alternative ways of offering commissions
17) Feedback and complaints
18) Resources

1) What does the law say?

• It is important to remember that, as an artist, the Equality Act will almost certainly cover you. This puts the responsibility on you to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to make your work accessible to disabled people, and to ensure that disabled people are not ‘substantially disadvantaged’ compared to non-disabled people. This is probably the case whether or not you receive any funding for your work, and is definitely the case whenever you or someone else charges people to see it.

• If you receive funding from a public body, for example from a local or health authority, the Public Sector Duty to Promote Disability Equality also covers you. This means that you have to take all reasonable steps to ensure that disabled people can access your work on an equal basis to non-disabled people. For example, if a public body funds you, you should make every possible effort to avoid using a performance or exhibition venue, which you know, is inaccessible to disabled people. And you should think carefully about how someone who has a visual, hearing or mobility impairment, or any other condition that will create particular access needs, will be able to experience and access the work.

• If a public body is funding your work, they will have a 3-year Disability Equality Action Plan (this is a legal requirement) – some may have included this within a wider Diversity Action Plan. It is worth asking to see a copy of this. When you apply for a grant from a public body, you should have a better chance of the application succeeding if you can show how your work fits into their Action Plan. And when you receive a grant, you will be better placed to ensure that you are complying with their Public Sector Duty if you know what their Action Plan says.

2) Who are disabled people?

• Disabled people may have mobility or sensory impairments, or a learning difficulty, or a cognitive impairment, or a mental health condition, or a long-term health condition such as heart disease, cancer or diabetes.

• Disabled people may have more than one impairment, and therefore more than one access need. If you are organizing an event, you will need to remember this. For example, wheelchair users may also need to be able to see the Sign Language Interpreter (SLI), so this will affect where you place them.

• Disabled people may not think of themselves as disabled, partly because they do not recognize themselves in the distorted media and charitable images of disability that are prevalent in our society.

• As many as one in five of us may be disabled. It is highly unlikely that you will ever give a performance or lecture, or hold an event or exhibition, without substantial numbers of disabled people being part of your target audience.

• You are also highly unlikely to be able to identify more than a fraction of the disabled people you meet. You need to work in such a way that you can accommodate disabled people without the majority having to identify themselves to you in advance. Many will be reluctant to do so because of stigma and discrimination, and will prefer to exclude themselves instead.

• Most of us are likely to become disabled at some point in our lives; disability is not about ‘us and them’ but all of us.

• Disabled people are artists, writers, critics, technicians, administrators, producers, directors, funding officers, commissioners, and buyers etc — not just audience members.

3) Attitude is everything

Disabled artists and audience members are not particularly concerned with how up-to-date your building is, nor whether or not you have state-of-the-art facilities. Rather, disabled people are primarily concerned with your attitude.

Many ‘state-of-the-art’ buildings are notorious among disabled people for having staff with appalling attitudes, in addition to architecture that falls far below the standard claimed for it. Other, technically poor venues are extremely popular with disabled people because of the attitudes of the staff and audience members.

• If you are willing to listen and to do whatever you can to make your work accessible, that is far more important than using a new venue or providing an expensive alternative means of experiencing your work. Make it clear that you are committed to disability equality, and people will work with you to achieve the best possible result.

• Remember that disabled people’s impairments and access needs will be relatively inflexible. You are the one who has the power to be flexible: use it.

• Remember that disabled people are the experts on their own needs, and allow them to decide what access solution works best for them. Everyone is an individual; just because an adjustment worked for one disabled person, doesn’t mean it will work for another with a similar impairment. Again, listening is crucial; explain the arrangements that you have made, and share information from other disabled people, but don’t insist that something is done — or is possible — in a particular way.

• Take some time to understand disability issues. There are free ‘Disability Equality Training’ courses available on the Internet, but if you are offered an affordable opportunity to access the real thing, this should provide you with long-term benefits.

• The old-fashioned way of looking at disability is now described as the ‘Medical Model of Disability’. Broadly speaking, this defines disabled people by their medical conditions (impairments). Any disadvantage experienced by disabled people is seen as being an inevitable consequence of their impairments, and as an individual’s medical and personal problem.

• Contemporary policies on disability are based on the Social Model of Disability. Here, impairment is seen as being a normal part of human life, and something that almost everyone will experience at some point. Disability is seen as a social problem, caused by unnecessary social and environmental barriers that we can work together to dismantle. Again, there is plenty of information about the Social Model available freely on the Internet, and new material is being added all the time. See Ju’s website Helping the Handicapped, linked from her home page at, or just do a Google search.

• A very simple example of the varying ways of looking at disability from the Medical and Social Models is as follows. Using the Medical Model of Disability, a wheelchair user cannot get into a building because they are unable to climb the steps. Only a doctor has any power to change this situation, if they are able to develop a ‘cure’. Using the Social Model of Disability, a wheelchair user cannot get into a building because the architect has failed to provide a ramp. Therefore we all have the power to change things, by building ramps or by choosing accessible venues to perform or exhibit in.

• Overall, think about access issues from the beginning of your project. If you wait until the end, you will not only find it more difficult, but you could have created a situation that is both inaccessible and extremely difficult to change. Thinking about alternative ways in which an audience can access your work while you are at the creation stage can also help you to improve the final work.

• If you are using a venue, check the access arrangements at an early stage in the planning. Don’t rely on what you are told by the venue’s management: ask to see the level access routes through the venue, accessible toilets etc for yourself. (Believe it or not, some accessible toilets are situated upstairs with no lift access.) Remember to see the backstage areas; you may book disabled artists or technicians.

• If possible, ask disabled people that you know to test the access beforehand. However, remember that, just because one person finds it accessible, doesn’t mean that someone else will. And just because someone is disabled, that doesn’t make him or her an access expert. Even an access professional won’t get everything right first time.

• Offer assistance where necessary. Have a pool of volunteers available to help with heavy doors, unload wheelchairs, fetch drinks, guide people through the venue, walk Guide Dogs etc. Make sure you have briefed them properly first, and ensure they have as much understanding of disability issues as possible — you don’t want your efforts undermined by well-meaning volunteers patronizing your audience or funding officer, for example.

• It is worth drawing venues’ attention to the Attitude is Everything organization, which is London-based but works across the UK. Led by disabled artists, Attitude is Everything works predominantly with live music venues and festivals to train staff including bar staff, door staff and stewards. They can also help venues to comply with the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act. Another aspect of their work is Club Attitude. Venues who are working with Attitude is Everything have the opportunity to organize a club night with them where they introduce disabled performers and musicians and audience members to the improved access at the venue.

4) A few words on language

It is not ‘PC’ to wish to avoid offending people. Equally, disabled people can be funders, commissioners and buyers — and friends and family members of funders, commissioners and buyers — as well as colleagues and audience members, and using offensive language could cost you dearly. Language changes all the time, and it is wise to keep up to date with this.

• At the time of writing (2008), in the UK people commonly refer to themselves as ‘disabled people’, meaning that they are people with impairments who face unnecessary environmental and social barriers. The term ‘people with disabilities’ is now regarded as reflecting the Medical Model of Disability, and as being another term for ‘people with deficiencies’, so, unsurprisingly, few people choose this. ‘The disabled’ might be appropriate in some usages, but be careful not to use this simply to refer to people as a group.

• The term ‘special’ was introduced in an attempt to counter disabilist language, but is now seen as outdated and patronizing and has become disabilist itself. Using the Social Model of Disability, there is also nothing special about people living with impairments; rather, it is entirely normal to be disabled. Ask about people’s ‘access needs’ on booking forms etc, not ‘special needs’.

• Other contemporary terms include ‘users/survivors of the mental health system’, and Deaf with a capital D to indicate sign language users.

• Language also varies among English-speaking countries, and it is sensible to be aware of the key differences. ‘Handicapped’, for example, is considered to be offensive in the UK, but is common parlance in the US. Similarly, while ‘mental handicap’ is still used in some countries, in the UK we now talk about ‘learning difficulties’, and in other countries the term ‘intellectual impairment’ may be used.

• It is extremely rare for disabled people to wish to describe themselves by their impairments, although there may be times when this is relevant for them. The most important thing is to check how people describe themselves — with disabled artists, check their website or biography for details.

• For example, many disabled artists identify with the international Disability Arts movement, and therefore are happy to describe themselves as a ‘disabled artist’. They are much less likely, though, to wish to identify themselves by their impairment or access needs, e.g. ‘blind artist’ or ‘wheelchair using artist‘, although there may be times when they believe this is so relevant to the work that it requires extreme prominence.

5) Knowledge is power

It is not enough to make sure that your events are accessible; you also have to let disabled people know about the arrangements that you have made so these can be of use. Otherwise disabled people will still not come to your event, and your efforts will have been for nothing.

Give as much detail as possible, and make sure that you have considered all of the issues. For example, if the door to the venue seems narrow, list its dimensions and flag this as an issue so that people can decide if their wheelchair or scooter will get through it or not. There is nothing worse than arriving at an event and then not being able to get in — and as many people travel en masse, this can result in a lot of angry punters and a ruined private view or first night.

• If you have a website, make sure that you have an access section and this is clearly signposted from the index or home page. Within the access section, make that sure you include an email address or telephone number where people can make more detailed enquiries.

• On a flyer, refer people to the website where they can find out further information about access, and preferably give an email address or phone number where they can make more detailed enquiries.

• Within the venue, put up a sign about access arrangements in a place where it can easily be seen, and make sure that door people, box office staff and so on have been fully briefed beforehand.

6) Advertising and publicity

It is important to understand accessible communications techniques if you are to maximize your audiences and your opportunities. Accessible techniques do not just work for disabled people; they enable your message to reach everyone more clearly.

You will also, if you are funded and/or charging for your event, be covered by the Equality Act and so will have to be able to offer information in alternative formats as a ‘reasonable adjustment’. It is best to be prepared for this in advance. The more accessible your core information, though, the fewer changes you will have to make on request.

• Learn to use sans-serif typefaces effectively — think 1930s modern design, for example — as these are by far the easiest to read.

• Use a typeface that is no smaller than 12 point — visual acuity declines after the age of 40, so this will benefit a substantial proportion of the population as well as people with visual and print impairments.

• Printing words in capital letters or italics makes them much more difficult to read. Use upper and lower case, and plain or bold text, whenever possible.

• Remember that reflective paper is harder to read, and use matte rather than glossy papers and laminates.

• If space is limited on a flyer, try using fewer words and pointing people at a website or phone line for further information rather than using a smaller typeface.

• Think about where your publicity material is being displayed. Make sure it is low enough for wheelchair users and short people to see and reach. Also ensure that the area where it is left is sufficiently open and well lit for people to be able to spot it easily.

• Try to use as many different ways to promote your work as possible. A choice of formats and places to find your publicity material increases the likelihood of providing some forms of access to it for everyone.

• Remember that the Disability Discrimination Act covers websites too. If you have a website, learn how to programme it so that it can be used by people with a wide range of access needs.

• Remember that documents in PDF format cannot be read by visually and print-impaired people using ‘text to speech’ software. Always offer a Word equivalent.

• If you have a fax, always include the number as this will be helpful for Deaf and hard of hearing people.

• Remember that language is important. People who speak different languages, people who are Deaf, and people with learning difficulties will read your publicity with various forms of print impairments such as dyslexia. In particular, if you work in an academic environment but are aiming your work at a more general audience, think about the vocabulary that you use to describe it.

• And as the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words (so long as you also include the words for people who can’t see pictures). Using pictograms, for example a graphic of a phone next to a phone number, can also help to make your publicity clearer and easier to access for a wide range of people.

Finally, make sure your advertising and publicity goes out in plenty of time. Disabled people will often have to make arrangements several weeks in advance, particularly if they have to book Personal Assistants and/or community transport services. However accessible your advertising and publicity material appears to be, it will be pointless if you do not give disabled people sufficient notice for them to be able to attend. (Parents of children will also need notice to make childcare arrangements.)

NB: This also applies to arrangements for any informal drinks etc that you might be having after an event. If you know that you intend to go to the pub after a training day or an event, let the participants know as far in advance as possible. Otherwise the disabled people will be traveling home alone while the rest of you are enjoying some social time. (Parents of children will also find it impossible unless they have been able to make childcare arrangements in advance, as will other carers.)

7) Signage

Good signage is key to attracting people to see your work or event (including open studio events), and costs little or nothing – use computer printouts (laminating these to make them rain-proof will only add pennies to the cost), or spray paint and stencils.

Poor signage can mean that a proportion of your audience never arrive at the venue, or never find their way around all the different rooms inside the venue. Poor signage can also create difficulties in an emergency, particularly but not only for disabled people.

• Good signage is written in simple English, and can be accompanied by images to make it clearer still (you can grab suitable images off the internet as free clip art).

• Remember that in many areas a substantial proportion of your audience may have English as a second language, in addition to disabled people with print impairments such as dyslexia. If people find your signage difficult or impossible to read, they certainly won’t come to your next event, even if they eventually manage to find this one.

• Signage needs to be large enough to be seen from a distance and in poor light – remember that wheelchair users and other disabled people may not be able to get close up to it. People with visual impairments may have particular difficulty in seeing in poor light.

• A sans-serif font such as Arial is by far the easiest to read. Think 1930s design, for instance.

• Use colours that contrast strongly – for example black on white, not grey or another pale colour on white. Be wary of using coloured signage on a coloured background, as a significant proportion of the male population is colour blind. • Think carefully about where you put your signage. Make sure it is high enough so people’s heads won’t hide it, and also make sure there is plenty of it. Think about every possible route into the venue, and check whether wheelchair users will be using a different route to the rest of the audience.

• If wheelchair users do need to use an alternative route, remember to make signage for this too. Include a mobile number so that people can contact you to clarify the route or to ask for help.

• Braille signage may not cost as much as you think, if you contact a local organization of disabled people. Printing out Braille on to card, and making it weatherproof with a light wash of PVA glue, is extremely cheap. Remember that Braille needs to be at hand height and in very obvious places for it to be of use, and if possible ask a Braille user to advise you.

• If you are using a makeshift venue, look at some of the no-budget production solutions common on the festival circuit. For example, in a dark venue, think about making a light box out of a cardboard box with an LED torch or bike light inside. Use a stencil to cut the Exit sign out of the lid, or print the sign on ordinary paper and mount instead of the lid.

8) External areas

Many ‘contemporary’ venues are in semi-industrial areas, and this often translates into a venue being dimly lit and surrounded by potholes. These can be extremely hazardous to wheelchair users, stick and crutch users and people who are visually impaired, particularly after dark (and, of course, parents with pushchairs will find this difficult too). A grassy surface can also be hazardous, especially for wheelchair users. Potholes are also, of course, dangerous to anyone after they’ve had a few drinks.

Making the external areas safer, as well as more attractive, has a wide range of benefits — including increasing your audience numbers as passers by see that something is happening and come to check it out.

• The short-term DIY approach to potholes — which can be repeated as necessary — is to get a bag of gravel and another of ready-mix concrete. Fill the holes with gravel, add the ready-mix and water with a watering can. With other hole-type hazards, mark them with high-visibility paint or tape.

• With grassy surfaces — for example when you are using tented venues — try to use some form of trackway between the nearest hard surface and the entrance. This will make it easier for people with visual and mobility impairments as it will level out the surface. In particular, wheelchair users can get stuck on grassy surfaces, particularly after it has been raining. Low/no-cost options include rolls of plastic carpet protector. Be careful with carpet itself, as this can become slippery if it rains.

• Gravel can also be very problematic for wheelchair users if it is deep, as can cobbles. (An accessible venue surrounded by cobbles is anything but.) Think about how to create an accessible route over them with some form of trackway.

• Lighting is key to safety. It has never been easier or cheaper to fit permanent lights which operate on motion sensors. However, there is a massive range of solar and candle-lit garden lamps available which can all add immensely to the atmosphere of your venue, and which start from less than a tenner.

• At the no-budget end, Ikea sell huge bags of tea lights very cheaply, and these can be set out in jam jars. Again, artists can learn a lot from the festival circuit about other creative alternatives.

• Think about doorways too. Are they easy to find, well lit and free of clutter? If the door will remain closed, how easy is it to open? Sometimes a little WD40 is all that is needed to prevent your audience from having to struggle to get in. Otherwise, make sure you have someone permanently on the door.

9) Labeling exhibits

Poor labeling means that your audience will only gain a partial understanding of your work. If it needs a title and an accompanying statement, then make sure that everyone can access it by making it large and clear enough. Again, labeling costs little or nothing to print out from a computer, so you can experiment to get it right.

• Keep the language simple, even if the concepts are complex. Remember that a substantial proportion of your audience may have English as an additional language, in addition to disabled people with print impairments such as dyslexia.

• Make sure that labels for artwork are printed in a sans-serif font such as Arial, and in at least 14point and preferably larger – remember that wheelchair users and other disabled people may not be able to get close up to it. Use colours that contrast strongly – for example black on white, not grey or another pale colour on white.

• If you are concerned about the aesthetics of using larger labels, then as an artist you should be able to find an appropriate design solution. If necessary, just put the titles on labels and put the accompanying statements into a handout instead.

• A further ‘reasonable adjustment’ is always to offer a large-print version of your labels — in at least 18 point, and always in a sans-serif font such as Arial — as a separate document. This enables people with visual impairments to hold it up close to their eyes. Make sure you have a large sign telling people that this is available.

10) Audio description

While most people think about people with mobility impairments in relation to disabled access, people with visual impairments are often forgotten about. In addition to having good signage and labeling, having audio description available is essential to make events and work accessible to people who are visually impaired. It is also helpful to have this available as an alternative to written labels and statements for people with print impairments.

Professional audio describers are often artists themselves. If you have an access budget available, particularly for live performance, it is obviously better to employ a professional. However, using non-professionals is much better than nothing.

Audio description is a skill that is good for all artists to develop. By describing the visual elements of your work or production, you gain valuable insights about how your work appears to an audience. You also gain clarity about the content of your work that can be very helpful when discussing it with peers, critics, funders and the media. This is true even if someone else is delivering the audio description. Allowing someone else to take full responsibility for the audio description also risks your work being misinterpreted and not shown off to its full potential.

• If you are producing a film or video, offer an audio-described version as an option. It is incredibly easy to do this when you are editing, and then to offer this as an alternative track on the DVD (along with a sub-titled version, of course). This may actually help you to achieve a broadcast for your moving image work, as digital channels regularly show films that have alternative formats available.

• With film screenings, theatre productions and other performances, you should check to see if your venue has facilities for audio description. This would involve having a soundproofed booth near the mixing desk, where someone can sit and describe the action to people who use wireless headphones to receive it.

• The same system is also used to play the audio-described track for your moving image work.

• Alternatively, DIY audio description involves whispering into someone’s ear.

• Since most people who are registered blind can see something, people with visual impairments prefer to sit close to the action. However, you may want to arrange their seats a short distance away from others. Let people know that you are providing audio description; people who complain about whispering are usually doing it because they think that someone is being disrespectful to the performers, rather than it affecting their own enjoyment.

• Some visually impaired people may have a friend or assistant who provides audio description for them. In this case, it is appropriate to offer the friend or assistant a free drink as well as free entry — they are unlikely to be able to enjoy the show much themselves, and describing can be very tiring.

• Whoever provides audio description, you need to allow a few minutes before a film or performance starts to enable the audio describer to describe the initial set up.

• With exhibitions and installations, it is easy to create an audio tour that can be made available on demand. CD is a better format to use than MP3, because it is rare to find an MP3 player with a large display and buttons — there is no point in having audio description if a visually impaired person is unable to operate the equipment needed to access it. You can buy a suitable personal CD player for less than £10 from the Internet or a catalogue such as Argos.

• If time allows, think about scripting the audio description before you record it. This can be incredibly valuable in helping reflect on the work before introducing it to the public.

• Alternatively, if you have produced a catalogue or other supporting material, you can copy and paste text from this into your script.

• In addition to a visual description, talk about some of the concepts and ideas in the work. Think about the emotional response that you are trying to evoke from people who can see it.

• With an exhibition, you will need to decide the route that you want the audio-description user to take. This may be valuable in helping you to understand more about the curating process.

• Most computers have a built-in microphone and recording programme, and the quality should be sufficient for your purposes. You can then burn the audio description to CD using the built-in programme. If using a Mac, you can assemble the tracks in iTunes and burn it from there.

• NB: It’s best to record a description of each individual piece of work as an individual track. This enables a visually impaired person to skip forward through the tracks. It also enables you to record the descriptions of each piece in advance of the hang, as you don’t need to know the order in which they will appear on the CD before you start work.

• Other members of your audience than simply the may also appreciate audio description visually and print impaired – just look at the number of people who wander round the Tate plugged into their audio tours. In general, art lovers seem to appreciate hearing about the work that they are seeing at the point at which they are seeing it.

11) Accommodating people with hearing impairments

It is important to understand that the term ‘hearing impairment’ covers a range of access requirements and solutions.

• A large proportion of the population has some degree of hearing loss, especially those over the age of 40. Most of these people will not have any form of hearing aid. Often a hearing aid would not be appropriate for their type of impairment, although sometimes people avoid using hearing aids because of the fear of disclosing their impairment.

• Ensuring that you have good lighting will benefit the majority of people with hearing impairments. All of us lip-read to a certain extent, and good lighting on speakers enables us to do this to the best of our ability. Good lighting can always be provided cheaply, and can be as simple as using a couple of clip-on spotlights from Ikea and an extension lead to augment dim venue lighting.

• Lip-reading is also dependent on the ability to see the speaker at all times. Make sure that, for example, a trainer stops speaking when they turn their back to write on a white board, and think about this issue when you are creating performances that use speech. Only speak with your back to the audience if this is absolutely necessary.

• Reduce background noise to a minimum; many people find it impossible to hear against background noise. Remember to close doors and windows, and turn off noisy fans and air-con systems; it is better to air the room during regular breaks.

• Always think about acoustics. Remember that hard, shiny walls are the most likely to reflect sound. If you have the option, cover these with fabric — most market traders who sell fabrics will have hard-to-shift rolls going cheap or free, and it is easy to buy fire-proofing spray. With concrete floors, think about carpets — off-cuts or skip rescue jobs work well for time-limited events.

• Always try to use a P.A. system with an event that includes speakers, and insist that when you do have one, everyone uses it. Everyone with a hearing impairment hates the speakers who start off by saying that they can project so well that they don’t need the microphone. Amplifying the sound is far more effective than ‘projecting’, and is essential for hearing aids to work correctly.

• NB: A second-hand karaoke machine makes a good and cheap P.A. substitute — local community organizations may also have portable p.a.s they are prepared to lend.

• People who do have hearing aids can link them directly into a ‘loop’ system. A loop can be connected to a sound system, or can operate from its own standalone microphone(s). Many venues now have built-in loops — if your event involves a lot of speaking, then check this when choosing a venue. However, a wide range of portable loop systems is available, and can be installed temporarily by using gaffer-tape to fix a thin telecom-type cable around a room. Try your local voluntary organizations and community centres if you need to borrow one, but consider buying one if you are likely to use it regularly.

• With video and film, always create a sub-titled version, and if possible use this as the ‘main’ version. Sub-titles are easy to create in desktop video editing programmes, and when you are working with a script you can simply copy and paste into them. Sub-titles make it easier for anyone with English as an additional language to understand as well as for people with hearing impairments.

• Sub-titles can also be used most effectively within performances, and can be created with a programme like PowerPoint as well as with video editing software. It is noticeable that sub-titles — sur-titles — are now commonly accepted and welcomed in opera performances in order that audiences can understand performances given in languages other than their own.

• People who use British Sign Language (BSL) identify themselves as being Deaf with a capital D. Many Deaf people do not consider themselves to be disabled, but rather to be members of a language and cultural minority — BSL is officially recognized as a British language alongside English, Welsh and Gaelic.

• It is important to remember that, for BSL users, English is an additional language, so written texts may also be hard for them to access. Some Deaf people may also use spoken English; others may not.

• There is an extremely large Deaf artistic community. Many Deaf people are directed towards visual areas of work because this is seen to be more appropriate and accessible for them. However, there are also Deaf dancers, performance artists and theatre companies. Making contact with local Deaf artists will help you to understand how best to make your work accessible to Deaf people.

• Potentially the most expensive adjustment for you to make is booking a Sign Language Interpreter (SLI). The no-budget solution is to consider learning BSL yourself. Many BSL interpreters are actors and performers, because the work is both flexible and highly paid. If you need to supplement your income as an artist, BSL interpretation is an extremely good way of doing it.

• It is good practice for all organizations and artists’ collectives to learn at least some basic BSL. Classes are normally available locally as part of adult education programmes. Learning as a group means that you have plenty of opportunities to practice together. If some people want to go on to learn more advanced BSL, it is helpful to enable them to do this as part of their work.

• Just about everyone can learn to fingerspell English quickly and easily, and a postcard-sized alphabet is widely available including to download. This will enable you to introduce yourself by name to a Deaf person, and to spell out any words that you are having difficulty with. Again, learning as a group means that you have plenty of opportunities to practice together.

• Professional BSL interpreters are in great demand, so you will need to book them well in advance. It is quite acceptable for you to ask people to notify you if they need an interpreter as part of the booking process, and to cancel if no one books. Agencies will normally have a sliding scale of cancellation fees according to how much notice is given. This also frees up interpreters for other bookings, although this obviously depends on the amount of notice they are given.

• In many cases, interpreters work in pairs, and swap over regularly. This is because interpreting is very tiring. If you only wish — or can afford — to book one interpreter, make sure that you discuss the job thoroughly at the time of booking. You may need to schedule in additional breaks to accommodate their needs.

• Interpreters need to be visible in order to be effective. If you are using a stage, it is conventional to put the interpreter at one side (remember they will need their own light source). Remember to reserve seats nearby for Deaf people, including Deaf wheelchair users. In a meeting, the interpreter will need to sit opposite the people they are interpreting for — again, good lighting is important, and it is important that neither the interpreter nor the Deaf person is backlit, for example seated with their back against the window.

• Remember that sign language varies as much as spoken language. In particular, remember American Sign Language (ASL) is a completely different language to BSL.

• It is perfectly acceptable to fall back on a notebook and pen if you are having difficulty communicating with someone with a hearing impairment. This is far preferable to being shouted at, ignored or excluded.

12) Accommodating people with mobility needs

Wide ranges of people have some form of mobility access need, for an even wider number of reasons. People with mobility needs include people with health conditions such as heart disease and cancer, who will have limited energy and who may find it dangerous to walk far, climb stairs or stand around for very long.

Remember too that conditions fluctuate; a disabled person who is fit enough to manage without adjustments one day may not be able to do so the next.

For every person who is easily identified as having a mobility access need because they are using a walking stick or wheelchair, there will be a large number of others who cannot be identified at all. As with almost every form of access provision, it is best just to assume that people with mobility needs will be your colleagues and audience members.

a) Seating

It is important to remember that some people will always need to sit down, whether this is at a private view or at a performance where everyone else is standing. This includes a substantial number of older people as well as disabled people, including not a few Arts Council officers and national critics.

• If people know that they will always find a chair at your event, they are more likely to turn out even if they are tired or in pain. If they know that none will be available when they arrive and a performance will be made about finding them one, they are unlikely to come back. At the end of the day, bums on seats are what it is all about, and sometimes you will need to provide those seats yourself.

• Remember that people will need to be able to sit down in bar and foyer areas, at box offices and in queues; not just in exhibitions and during performances.

• Most venues will have plenty of chairs, it is just a question of locating these beforehand and arranging to use them. With a makeshift venue, trawl through local skips if necessary, but if you have storage available, it is worth building up a collection.

• Whatever your situation, make sure that you have some chairs available and at hand. People may not ask for them if they can’t see them, but if they really need to sit down, their enjoyment of your work will be badly affected by standing or leaning against the bar, and they will certainly be among the first to leave.

• If you have a little money available and would prefer your event to look smarter, Ikea will always have a selection of cheap folding chairs for sale. However, in an ideal world, include at least one chair with arms, as this will make it easier for people with mobility difficulties to get in and out of.

• Also monitor plastic chairs for comfort; some chairs of all prices are horrendously painful for people with back and hip problems to sit on. Folding chairs in bags, available from service stations etc, may be a better solution and are also very easy to store.

• If some people are sitting to watch speakers or a performance when the rest of the audience is standing, make sure that they are given space at the front. If a performance is moving around the space, make sure you have helpers available to assist people to move chairs and to move round safely and easily themselves.

b) Wheelchair users

Some people with mobility difficulties will bring their own chairs, i.e. wheelchairs, and it is worth making this as easy as possible for them. The vast majority of wheelchair users can walk a little, but it is far safer and more comfortable for them to be able to bring their chairs and not to have to get out of them; in any case, some people will not be able to do so.

• There is no such thing as a ‘wheelchair accessible step’ (unless you happen to be a Paralympics athlete), and no excuse when it is so easy to make a ramp (see below). Athletes aside, it is safer for someone who can walk a little to climb the steps and to have their chair lifted up separately, but again, no excuse for asking them to do this in the 21st century.

• Do NOT encourage wheelchair users to try to get up one or two steps in their chair without a ramp rather than your providing one. There is always a real danger that wheelchair users will be tipped out when doing this, and this can result in serious injury. It is also easy to damage a chair by doing this, which ruins anyone’s night out. Equally, when a wheelchair user is trying to get their chair up a step, someone will need to help them by pushing from behind, and the pusher is at risk of damaging their back permanently when they do so.

• New venues should, by law, now have ramped entrances or lifts, as should older ones. The lack of a ramp or lift is no longer an acceptable excuse for excluding wheelchair users, since making ‘reasonable adjustments’ to buildings on either a temporary or the law now covers permanent basis.

• If you are hiring a venue, they should either provide wheelchair access via a level entry, a lift or a permanent ramp, or make a temporary ramp available on demand. When a temporary ramp is being used, make sure it is out ready when your audience or visitors arrive. Don’t wait for someone to ask for it; they are just as likely to go home again. Even if they don’t, it is no fun waiting outside while someone finds the key to the storage cupboard, and this can affect their enjoyment of the whole event. Also remember that wheelchair users can get very cold, as they do not walk around to keep their circulation flowing.

• If a lift is used to access the building from outside, also make sure that you know how it operates, and where the key that you will normally need to operate it is kept.

• As above, make sure that the lift is working before your audience arrives; don’t wait to find out that the key has disappeared until someone asks to use the lift.

• With makeshift venues, it is perfectly acceptable to offer a makeshift ramp so long as this is safe. With one or two steps, a large piece of scrap wood may well be sufficient, although this may not be appropriate for all power wheelchair users.

• However, if you have time, it is best to build a proper temporary ramp — again, scrap wood is fine so long as it is sound — using plans from the Internet.

• Alternatively, if you have access to a budget, then you can buy a portable metal ramp for under £100 – most will fold, and some will roll up. This is obviously the ideal solution, because it is the safest and easiest to store.

• Whatever you do, do not offer to carry a wheelchair user. Apart from being considered unacceptable in this day and age, this is highly dangerous for both you and them, and the consequences could be horrendous. Remember that battery-powered chairs are extremely heavy, and can weigh 20 stone even when unoccupied.

• Remember that anything which benefits wheelchair users, will also benefit parents with pushchairs.

c) Layout

It is always important to think about people with mobility needs when laying out your venue or exhibition.

• Make sure you have reserved spaces for wheelchair users and people who will need to sit down where they will be able to see the speakers/performers when other people will be standing.

• Try to make sure in seated events that wheelchair users are not forced to be at the back. Some wheelchair users also have visual or hearing impairments, so they need to be close to the front.

• Check that aisles are wide enough to enable wheelchair users to access them easily, and that routes to key parts of the venue (toilets, bar, exits etc) are kept clear.

• Remember that people who are walking may find it very difficult to twist and turn around obstacles. Keep routes as straight as possible.

• When hanging shows, think about whether or not exhibits and installations can be seen by wheelchair users and small people — and in most cases, children too. Never hang a show without having a chair to hand and sitting on it before making a final decision.

• Simply sitting on a chair is also a marvelous way of finding out whether wheelchair users, children and small people can reach your publicity display, access your reception desk etc.

d) Lifts

Any lift is better than none, but you may have to make adjustments to make your lift suitable for as many people as possible.

• If a lift is usually kept locked, make sure it is left open while your event is on. It is not acceptable to make your audience member find their way painfully to the lift, only to discover a notice telling them to go back to reception or the box office for a key.

• If a lift is key-operated, make sure that everyone knows where the key is kept and how to use it. Try to identify potential lift users when they come in, so that they know how to find someone who can operate it for them.

• If using your lift requires someone to open and close a gate manually, make sure you have plenty of volunteers available to do this, and again, try to identify potential lift users when they come in.

• Understand how your lift operates. Don’t expect disabled people to know exactly how your stair-lift works — there are many models available, and they are all slightly different.

• Make sure your signage extends to the lift. Give as much information as possible about what is going on where. And make sure the signage in the rest of the building covers the route from the lift and not just from the stairs.

• Have a chair available for use in the lift. Many people will be unsteady on their feet.

• If your lift is not wide enough for a wheelchair user, offer to assist them to transfer to the chair in the lift. If they are using a manual wheelchair, carry their wheelchair upstairs for them. Otherwise, think about having a spare manual chair at the top of the stairs for loaning out; Argos sells ones that are fine for occasional use. Don’t try to carry a power chair unless the batteries can be taken out first, though — these can weigh more twice the weight of the occupant.

e) Parking

Many people with mobility problems will only be able to access your performance, event or exhibition, whether as an artist or audience member, if they can drive to it. It is therefore extremely important that you find out about local Blue Badge parking provision.

• Remember that Blue Badge holders are likely to be drivers. It is helpful to advertise drop-off information, but it is unhelpful to assume that every disabled person has a non-disabled person to drive them and drop them off.

• With a professional venue, the venue management should be able to assist you with parking information. However, this will often be insufficient and you will have to take responsibility for finding out full details yourself.

• Most venues will have some provision for Blue Badge holders, but this may not be advertised. If there appears to be no parking, find out what provision exists in loading bays, staff car parks etc.

• When venue parking is restricted, find out about local car parks and make sure the details are publicized; don’t expect disabled people to carry out this research themselves rather than go elsewhere.

• Check for any height restrictions — wheelchair-accessible vans may be over-height for underground car parks and car parks with fixed barriers. If so, prioritise venue parking for over-height vehicles and make this clear within your access information.

• Look at the roads around the venue. Where there are yellow lines, are there marks to show loading bans? (In this case, Blue Badge holders will be unable to park on them.)

• Do not assume that Blue Badge holders can park all day on yellow lines; there is normally a limit of three hours or so even when no loading ban exists. This means that yellow lines are unlikely to provide appropriate parking for all-day events.

• In London, find out where the red route loading bays are. Some of these will allow parking for Blue Badge holders at particular times of the day. In the City of London, Badge holders can normally park in red route bays indefinitely at the weekend.

• Central London boroughs are exempt from the national Blue Badge scheme. It is important to check what the local regulations are, and to find out exactly where and when Blue Badge users can park.

13) Toilets

It is possible to make any toilet more disabled friendly, including those that already claim to be.

• Make sure that accessible toilets are clear of clutter. It is unacceptable to use an accessible toilet as a storage space for mops, brooms and other cleaning equipment.

• Understand how the layout of an accessible toilet is supposed to work. Make sure that sanitary bins etc are not blocking the space that has been left next to the toilet to enable wheelchair users to transfer safely.

• Understand how the alarm system works, and check that you know how to switch it off again. Alarms are primarily intended for people who have fallen to the floor, which is why the cord is floor length. Make sure that cords are not tied back round pipes or knotted to make them shorter, and replace cords that have been cut as soon as possible.

• Avoid using accessible toilets as baby changing rooms where possible. Where it is unavoidable, think about having a changing table on wheels that can be left outside the toilet when not in use (make sure that it does not block the exit).

• Try to make sure that non-disabled people do not misuse accessible toilets. However, remember that people may need to use accessible toilets for a variety of reasons. For example, they may have colostomy bags, or need sterile environments in which to prepare drugs, or simply have a mobility impairment that is not visible. It is better to check politely that someone knows it is an accessible toilet than to demand proof that they need to use it.

• Keep routes to accessible toilets clear, and well signed.

• If a special key is needed to open an accessible toilet, make sure you know where to find this. Also make this clear at reception and tell people how to get it from you, rather than disabled people only finding out when they reach the toilet.

• Grab rails can be purchased for less than £10 each from DIY shops like B&Q. Whether or not you have an accessible toilet, it is also useful to provide grab rails in all cubicles. Disabled people are not the only people who may find it hard to keep their balance and remain on their feet; at the end of a private view, the majority of people may well be in this situation.

• Remember that so-called accessible toilets will not be accessible to all disabled people. In particular, many will be too small for someone who needs to use a hoist, even if they have brought their own portable hoist with them in their vehicle. If your venue has a small ‘accessible’ toilet, find out if there are alternative facilities elsewhere. Also think about whether there are private, lockable spaces that someone can use with a bottle or potty (don’t worry, they will have this with them!), or to change bags or pads, if they can’t get in.

• If, however, you use a building with a large accessible toilet, think about how to source your own hoist (and make its availability clear in your publicity material). There are a number of extremely exciting and innovative artists working nationally who need these facilities, quite apart from audience members.

14) Dogs, flash photography and some other things you might not have thought about

Some disabled people, including blind people, may use assistance dogs. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Guide dogs and assistance dogs for people with mobility impairments tend to be larger; hearing dogs may be smaller. You will normally be legally obliged to accommodate registered assistance dogs as part of your ‘reasonable adjustments’.

• Dog owners are the best judges of what their dogs will tolerate. Often, audience members will only bring dogs if they are confident that the dogs will cope with the demands of the event and remain quiet and under control. However, some audience members will need their dogs in order to travel, but will prefer to leave them in a quiet space during the event itself.

• Artists with dogs will normally need to bring them with them at all times. Providing a quiet space, and putting down some old blankets and providing a water bowl, will make it much easier for artists with dogs to be included as equals.

• Whatever their size, dogs will all need somewhere to go to the toilet. At a large event, or an event where other people may bring dogs, it is helpful to put down a small piece of turf over concrete if you have no grassy area available. Most garden centres will be happy to give you small quantities free of charge for this purpose if you approach them on a good day. However, assistance dogs are trained to be able to go to the toilet on command on any surface, so this is not essential.

• It is helpful to offer to escort audience members’ dogs to the toilet, since their owners will be unfamiliar with the layout. It will also be essential to escort all dogs if there is restricted access to your designated area.

• Some people are scared of dogs, others are allergic. You may therefore need to offer alternative seating to either the dog owner or the audience member (it is obviously easier for someone without a dog to move). Try to work out in advance where the best place is to seat people with dogs, and make sure this is close to an exit if possible.

• Remember that artists and venue staff may be scared of or allergic to dogs too; this is not simply an audience issue. However, it is usually possible, with a little forethought, to accommodate everyone’s needs.

Flash photography is another issue that people often overlook.

• Flash photography can, in a few cases, set off epileptic fits in people who are vulnerable.

• However, flash photography can also be problematic for other reasons. People with ‘hyper-startle’ responses can find flashes unbearable.

• Other people who find flashes difficult include all those whose pupils react slowly to light changes. This includes a lot of people on medication, as drugs affect the pupils ability to contract quickly.

• It is always best to avoid flash photography altogether. Photographers can usually manage without it, particularly now with digital technology.

• Otherwise, always ask at the beginning of an event if people are happy for flash to be used, and ask performers and speakers beforehand.

• When you do use flash — i.e. on occasions where no one has objected — still try to keep it to a minimum. Everyone is distracted by flash to some extent.

Strobe lighting will always be problematic for people with epilepsy. If you feel you must use strobes, make sure this is clear in your publicity material. You should still put up warning signs outside on the night, but it is unfair to bring audience members to your event and only then make it clear that they cannot access it.

It is good practice to offer free tickets for professional care workers — known as Personal Assistants or PAs — and you may want to extend this to companions of disabled people too. If you do not offer free tickets to companions, then it is good practice to offer any price reductions that you might make for disabled people to one companion as well. This is for two reasons. First, the companion is likely to offer support, which you will otherwise have to provide instead, for example holding open doors and collecting drinks. Second, if the disabled person is only able to come if they are accompanied, they may well be in the position of having to pay for the second ticket for their companion. Disabled people as a group have the lowest incomes in the country — there is an 80 per cent unemployment rate among disabled people of working age — so cost can be as much an access barrier as anything else.

If you are holding a conference-type event, a training day or a meeting, it is important to stick to your timetable. Many disabled people need to eat promptly and take medication at meal times; people with limited energy will also ration their energy according to your schedule and rest throughout the breaks. Going over your morning timetable and then shortening the lunch break will make the afternoon session at best far less accessible and at worst impossible for some disabled people. Running over at the end will also exclude many disabled people, as they will have booked taxis, lifts or other forms of door-to-door transport and will have to leave promptly.

And when you are scheduling daytime events, think about your start and end times. Disabled people find it difficult to travel in the rush hour, and also to book taxis and community transport at these times.

15) Alternative ways of accessing your work

There will always be times when it is impossible to make your work fully accessible to everyone. Even when a venue meets contemporary access standards, it will not suit everyone. However, there are alternatives that also help to open up your audience more generally.

• The obvious alternative means of access is the Internet. Creating a website that documents your work in detail makes it available internationally and indefinitely, and will continue to bring career benefits that outweigh any time spent in setting it up. There are various ways to create a website without having much technical knowledge, including creative use of ‘blogging’ or social networking websites.

• With web cams becoming ever cheaper, and wireless Internet connections now the norm, live streaming of your work on the Internet has never been easier. Still images can be of a much higher standard, though; it is important to judge what is most appropriate for your work — sometimes this will be a combination.

• Where part of a gallery or performance space is accessible but part of the venue is not, perhaps because it is upstairs and there is no lift, you will want to explore different solutions. If possible, use a web cam to stream the action from the inaccessible part of the venue and display it on a screen in the accessible parts. This gives people a sense of what is happening elsewhere in the building at the time they are there.

• If you have a spare projector and wall space (or even a proper screen!), consider using this to stream the video life-size for maximum impact. It will also encourage other visitors to venture further into the venue. Otherwise just use a PC – look for one on Freecycle if you can’t locate a spare one.

• Alongside this, make a video of the inaccessible work. This should be possible to do without any editing, if time doesn’t allow. Creating a video allows people to see the work in much more detail than web streaming, and also allows you to zoom in on details. Arrange to be able to show the video as an alternative to the streaming, on the same PC or screen, and make it clear it is available.

• Other alternatives depend on the work that you are making. It is always good practice to document your work as fully as possible, and video documentation in particular can provide an alternative when your venue is not accessible to someone for whatever reason.

• In general, think about who may be excluded, and how you can overcome this. The next artist you collaborate with, or the next person who buys your work, could be the person you provide an alternative for now.

16) Alternative ways of offering commissions

If you are offering commissions, or organizing group shows and productions, remember that you can make ‘reasonable adjustments’ here too – and almost certainly are legally obliged to do so. Make your willingness to do so clear from the outset.

• Remember that access starts with the application process. Ensure that your documentation is well laid out and is easy to understand. Format it in a sans serif font such as Arial, and in a minimum of 12pt type. Think about allowing artists to submit proposals in alternative formats, such as video, instead of print. Never insist that proposals are posted rather than emailed, as some artists may only have limited access to the post office.

• When you are applying for funding in order to be able to offer commissions, remember to include an access budget. Artists who need them should be given access budgets on top of their creative budgets; they should never be expected to fund their access costs out of the same size pot of money as non-disabled artists are given.

• Always let the artists themselves suggest solutions to problems. For example, a disabled dance artist choreographed a piece of work for a stairwell because the company was based in an upstairs space with no lift.

• Another alternative might be for an artist to make a work that is situated by the doorway, or is projected on to the outside of the building.

• Virtual residencies’ have also been pioneered, where an artist who cannot physically access a venue can work via the Internet, phone, fax etc to create work for it.

• Similarly, an artist may be able to join in a discussion or conference session via web cam when it has not been possible to secure an accessible venue. Not necessarily ideal, but far better than nothing.

• The point is, ask the artist what their solution is rather than deciding not to approach them when commissioning work. Barriers can also be catalysts to creativity; disabled artists are currently creating great work in every medium. And remember to publicise your willingness to be flexible and make adjustments.

16) Feedback and complaints

There are two sorts of people: those who welcome complaints without being defensive as a means of being able to improve their work; and those who find complaints threatening and take them personally.
The first group talks about the importance of getting feedback; the second group deliberately works against increasing disabled audiences because complaints will inevitably accompany them.

• Feedback forms can be useful, but keep them simple. Follow the accessible communication guidance above. If people want to take forms away with them to complete later, give them a stamped addressed envelope too.

• Think about alternatives to form filling. For example, going round with a microphone and MP3 recorder will widen access, but it will also get you a different type of feedback to a form.

• Make sure that web-based work includes an email link for people to feed back to you too.

• Keep feedback forms on file for the future. This is particularly useful when applying for future funding, but can also be a good way of monitoring your progress.

17) Resources

Independent Living Alternatives, Trafalgar House, Grenville Place, London NW7 3SA. Tel: 020 8906 9265. Fax: 020 8959 1910. Email: Website: www. This is a disabled-led organization that can provide PAs for meetings, conferences, events etc, and can also provide PA support for visiting artists.

Attitude is Everything
54 Chalton Street,
NW1 1HS. Tel: 020 7383 7979. Email: Website: this is a disabled-led organization that can provide staff/steward training and access audits for live music venues and festivals. They also run Club Attitude, programming disabled artists and musicians in venues that they are working with and so helping to introduce new audiences.

Business Disability Forum (formerly Employers' Forum on Disability)
Nutmeg House,
60 Gainsford Street,
London SE1 2NY. Telephone: 020 7403 3020.
Fax: 020 7403 0404.
Textphone: 020 7403 0040.
Email: Website: “Our mission is to enable companies to become disability confident by making it easier to recruit and retain disabled employees and to serve disabled customers.” Members have access to a range of resources including detailed information on how to implement the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).

Website accessibility The BBC's accessibility section is highly recommended by New Work Network’s website consultant. (

Return to top of page

Return to Ju Gosling's Home Page