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Addressing accessibility

How can cultural venues proactively improve disabled access

Last week a Deaf music fan filed a lawsuit against a concert promoter, claiming she was only provided with a sign language interpreter for part of a concert, not for the support acts – thus offering her a quality of experience that was considerably less than that of fellow hearing fans.

This story has sparked renewed discussion around access to the performing arts and what venues can be expected to provide by way of provision for Deaf and disabled audiences.

The Equality Act, 2010 states that any organisation supplying a service to the public has a duty to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that a person with disabilities’ experience is as close as possible to that of someone without a disability. The phrase ‘reasonable adjustment’ has been a key one for many venue operators and promoters when making decisions about what sort of provision they are able or required to offer customers with disabilities. The concept is something of a grey one since it allows some leeway, especially for smaller venues who often cite poor financial viability as reason not to implement changes or adjustments to improve access.

Few venues have a dedicated person responsible for access and as a result they are often reactively responding to queries and requests from audience members and visitors. Whilst many venues will build clauses into contracts with promoters regarding spaces for wheelchairs or designated accessible viewing platforms, consideration usually stops there.

Will this case set a precedent going forward for venues across the U.K.? It just might—the ruling on this case could indeed create a new definition for reasonable adjustment and could set a precedent for similar cases directly comparable to this one. However, it is difficult to draw legal precedents because what is needed to treat one person with a particular disability may be very different for another person. And what may be seen as reasonable for a large commercial music promoter may differ considerably to what is seen as reasonable for a smaller community performing arts organisation. The outcome of this case will certainly be watched with interest by Deaf and disabled audiences and performing arts venues alike.

But beyond legal terminology and requirements, perhaps it’s time for arts venues to take a different approach to thinking about access. Instead of being driven by statutory requirement or legal precedent, organisations should look at the social model of disability – that disability is caused by the way society is organised rather than by a person’s impairment or difference. A different approach may see these venues reaping the benefits.

With 13.3m Deaf and disabled adults in the U.K. this is a sizeable market whose attendance at performing arts events has seen significant and continuing growth over the last decade – attributable in part to improved access at the point of booking, thanks to technological advancements and increasing awareness of a right to access thanks to the Equalities Act. It will always be a challenge for all performing arts venues (especially the smaller and non-for-profit ones) to offer a truly accessible experience to every audience member, but they can at least implement some measures that will allow for a more inclusive offer to disabled audiences.

Organisations such as Attitude is Everything (who run a Charter of Best Practice scheme for venues) and Shape Arts are playing a key role in encouraging arts organisations to embrace a positive, proactive approach to access. And hopefully next time it won’t take legal action to motivate venues to examine how they can better serve Deaf and disabled audiences.

- Rachel Kuhn, Consultant