Dec 3, 2020

It’s Time to Talk About Accessibility in Theatre

Now that everything has moved online, the theatre industry has the chance to improve accessibility and inclusivity.

Ailbhe NoonanTheatre Editor
Lír graduate Áine O'Hara says that accessibility is "pretty bad" for those with a disability in the industry.
Evelyn Broderick

With theatre events online for the foreseeable future, venues and theatre companies are finding new ways to promote inclusivity. Many are encountering obstructions, be it while working in old buildings, from a lack of knowledge and training, or financial difficulties. Nevertheless, there are many easy and inexpensive ways that inclusivity can be incorporated, even in the likes of heritage buildings.

One person championing inclusivity through their work and activism is Áine O’Hara. A Lír graduate, they work in several disciplines including lighting, set design, and acting. Speaking to The University Times, O’Hara says that even pre-pandemic, accessibility was “pretty bad” for those with a disability in the industry: “The hours that you’re expected to work in theatre are really not good for anyone’s health, and then if you add in extra health issues on top of that, it’s nearly impossible.”

It’s not just long hours that pose an issue either – many venues are inaccessible for audience members. “Sometimes a building will have access things in place that were decided on ages ago because they had to adhere to some code, and then they’ll override that by putting something in front of a lift or having to stand in a big queue when you go to collect your tickets.”


However, access documents can help to detail the needs of disabled artists at work, they add, directing me to the website accessdocsforartists.com for further research. They also cite Arts and Disability Ireland (ADI) as a great organisation for both disabled artists and companies looking to be more inclusive.

It can be harder for friends of mine in wheelchairs or with walking frames to even get up onstage sometimes

Speaking from experience, O’Hara concedes that setting out your needs can be “terrifying”, adding: “I put myself and my body through a lot of stuff that I couldn’t do, and it was bad for my health. I wish that I had had the courage to say to people, ‘look, I’m only able to work two hours a day’.”

“You’ll be surprised about who is really understanding and helpful, and if they aren’t, then you don’t want to be working with them anyway”, O’Hara points out.

Similarly, in an email to The University Times, actor Mark Smith says that it is important “to include people with all types of disabilities in theatre making”, adding that “it can be harder for friends of [his] in wheelchairs or with walking frames to even get up onstage sometimes”. While these physical obstacles are lesser for Smith, he advocates for more opportunities for actors with Down Syndrome, saying he would “like the chance to be on the West End”.

Unable to drive as a result of his disability, Smith sometimes finds it difficult to get to rehearsal locations. In addition, learning lines for a role requires, from him, a great deal of hard work, he explains. “Remembering my lines can be a challenge, and sometimes I need a prompt. So, I need to be given enough time to work on my scripts.”

Despite these difficulties, Smith truly enjoys the work. His advice to artists in a similar situation is to “work with a good team. You need to work hard, but it’s worth it. Put the work in and be present on the day”.

Access is a much more complex beast than just being able to get in the door – it’s also whether you even know that the door is there

Recently, Smith worked with Aisling Byrne, Trinity graduate and founder of Run of the Mill Theatre, on a cinematic reading of Eavan Boland’s Quarantine. Describing the creative process, he noted that while it took him three to four weeks to learn the poem, recording the audio and video separately “was good because I didn’t have to remember the poem on the day. I could just focus on my performance”.

Founded in 2014, Run of the Mill Theatre is an inclusive theatre collective that strives to improve access to arts education for those with an intellectual disability and draws attention to opportunities that can help pave a path to an arts career. Speaking with The University Times, Byrne says that “access is a much more complex beast than just being able to get in the door – it’s also whether you even know that the door is there”.

She also highlights the importance of visibility: “Oftentimes when people encounter our work who don’t have an explicit connection to ‘special needs’, a response we get is ‘oh my gosh, I’ve never really thought about this.” For Byrne, “the arts shine a light on lived experience and history, and they amplify unheard voices”.

Her advice to companies looking to be more inclusive is to acknowledge Ireland’s history of trying to protect people with an intellectual disability in an exclusionary manner. “You’re just an artist who wants to work with a group of brilliant and interesting people”, she says. “It’s not about erasing needs – it’s about not being afraid to engage with them.”

The arts shine a light on lived experience and history, and they amplify unheard voices

Youth Theatre Ireland (YTI) has also taken note of this conversation. In an email to The University Times, Hannah O’Dwyer, AsIAm education officer, discusses the recent handbook developed by YTI in partnership with AsIAm – Ireland’s National Autism Charity: “We developed the handbook due to the need which was arising for youth theatre facilitators in relation to supporting accessibility for autistic participants to take part in youth theatre groups.”

O’Dwyer references a recent study that highlighted the large proportion of youth theatre participants with a disability who identify as autistic. “In 2019, Youth Theatre Ireland released a report on a national study which they had conducted – Centre Stage +20 – and this research found that 18 per cent of their workshop participants identified as having a disability and of that 18 per cent 88, per cent identified as autistic.” She notes that theatre provides a safe space where young people can be accepted and “celebrated for who they are”.

O’Dwyer hopes that facilitators will now be better able to foster a spirit of inclusion, while identifying participants’ specific needs, such as sensory triggers in the environment. “It is my hope that youth theatre facilitators will take away the key points in relation to building a culture of inclusion within their workshops, so that the resources and supports suggested in this handbook will become part of an inclusive practice used with all young people taking part in youth theatre.”

Theatre is one of the few spaces where everyone is accepted for who they are. With everything moving online for the foreseeable future, companies have the chance to develop and implement inclusive practices so that when live theatre returns, everyone can participate.

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