Providing access, real access, is a tricky thing.

An Empty Theatre Stage

An Empty Theatre Stage

Providing access, real access, for people who are Deaf or have a disability, can be a complicated thing. How to do it in such a way that doesn’t actually create more trouble or pressure for the person involved? How to make it actually WORK? Usually, when someone attempts to provide access, but the whole thing fails miserably, I give them a pat on the back and thank them, because I know they tried and I appreciate that. But recently I’ve come to think that actually, it would be better if I ever so kindly explained why it didn’t work. Why should I do this? Because then, next time, maybe there’s a chance that the access attempt will actually work.

This feels awkward. I hate to point out the failings of others, especially when I know they have tried. But Stella Young taught me how important it was to do this. If you don’t know who Stella Young is – Google her.. she rocks! And she wrote much, much better than I do, about this stuff. But since she’s dead, I’m trying in my somewhat pathetic way to carry on her flame. This one’s in her memory.

A thoughtful invitation

A while ago I received an email from a performer who was bringing her show to Melbourne. She was thinking of organising Auslan interpreters for the show, and wondered if I would be interested in coming.

I was touched by her thoughtfulness. This is an independent artist who wouldn’t be making much money, and yet she was happy to add what would be a significant expense to her budget, in order to make it an inclusive event. I was impressed. Of course I’d go.

Things were a little awkward

But on the night, things were a little awkward. I was the only Deaf person in the audience, so the interpreter was interpreting just for me. She was an old friend, actually.

When the show opened, I realised I couldn’t actually follow it, even with the interpreter. For a start, it was a physical theatre show, and the position of the reserved seating for the one and only Deaf audience member was such that I couldn’t easily see both the interpreter and the performer. There was a LOT of text, so the interpreter was going hard. I couldn’t really afford to look away or I’d miss too much to follow it.

But even while concentrating hard on the interpreter, and missing a lot of the physical action, the show didn’t seem to make sense. Paula nudged me and told me it was rather abstract content. The interpreter had told me that she’d only been booked a couple of days before – she’d had no opportunity to prepare. Without the time to mull over the content of the show and think about the best way to present it in Auslan, the interpreter was stuck too. She was making the best of a difficult situation.

But even the best really wasn’t enough. To be honest, I couldn’t make head or tail of it. I tried screening out the interpreter and just watching the physical action. But that felt rude, really rude. I mean, I was the only Deaf person there, and she was an old friend! I didn’t want to hurt her feelings by ignoring her.

With all this pressure on me, I started to feel upset

The longer I sat there though, with nothing making sense at all, the more frustrated and upset I began to feel. In fact, what I really, really wanted to do, was get up and walk out. I so did not want to be in this position. But, as the only Deaf audience member, where would that leave the interpreter? She’d have to stand there interpreting to no-one! Awkward! Or would she stop, and that would announce to the whole audience that for some reason, the Deaf patron had walked out.

No, I couldn’t do it. I stayed. Instead, I bolted when the curtain went down. What to say to the lovely, thoughtful performer who had booked interpreters to make this event more accessible? Would I ask her if she had promoted it adequately to the Deaf community? (Which would have taken the pressure off me as the one-and-only-Deaf-audience-member.) Would I ask her why the interpreters had been booked at the last minute when she had been planning this for months? I think it wasn’t her fault – the venue was in charge of booking the interpreter, not her. And would I say to my dear old friend, ‘I like you so much, but I couldn’t understand a word you said? I know it’s not your fault…’

What to do about it?

This whole situation leaves me uncertain. Because on one hand I am deeply appreciative that people were prepared to be thoughtful, considerate, inclusive, and put money towards access. But on the other hand, the access provided was all wrong, and it wasn’t really access at all. It put me in a very uncomfortable, awkward position. One I would much rather avoid.

By saying nothing, trying to be appreciative, I’m not helping fix the problem. There’s a problem here. This is not the first time I’ve been in such a situation. In fact, situations like this are very familiar to me. There’s not enough awareness on the part of theatres about how to book interpreters for a show. There’s not enough awareness on the part of producers about how to market a show to the Deaf community, and set it up so that the audience can see both the interpreter and the performer.

So I’m writing this post, hoping to put a little something out there. Hoping that the people involved won’t be offended, if they read this. Hoping that we can all find more effective ways to access and inclusion that don’t add more pressure to the people they are a supposed to benefit.

4 thoughts on “Providing access, real access, is a tricky thing.

  1. eternalpeacechild

    I do understand as another deaf person.. Thank you for using your voice on this matter.. I think if it wasn’t working and often it isn’t for me I have to say something. Maybe they get offended. Or they give up but if I keep speaking about what works for me some day some one will listen and finally understand.. At the very least Ive made people aware so they are not wasting their time..

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  2. edie115

    I think that’s a brilliant post.it completely explains how difficult it can be for you. And I understand about not wanting to be ungrateful, but I don’t think you are. I think you should sing this out. It’s not ungrateful. It’s just simply how things are and if they are difficult surely we have to say that they are, otherwise things won’t change. I always feel so awkward about this stuff. Because I don’t sign. And I don’t seem to have the time to learn but then I think but wahhhhh I have a deaf friend! What if we met. I mean that would seem kind of shitty right!!! And yes I could write things down but I talk at a million miles an hour!!! I would want to say everything!
    So then I feel responsible. Like I should at least bloody try. I’m into being challenged on those thoughts. And it is totally my responsibility. I get that.
    Near where I grew up there was a huge school. On a cliff top. Think kind of bleak, windy cliff top. I said… I’d quite like to go there. But was told it was for deaf and blind people. I was kind of incredulous about that. I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t just all go to school together. Surely that would be a good thing, then everyone would merge. Or maybe that’s a crap idea. Maybe it’s all much more complicated? But maybe not. I’m just rambling my thoughts. I probably need to give it more thought!
    I hate that it’s so shitty. And I’m interested on hearing more on it.❤️

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  3. HVL

    I have a friend who’s an audio describer (currently based in Melbourne). I know for things like theatre performances he practices & prepares during rehearsals, so I’ve asked him if he’s experienced similar problems & for any advice that may be helpful for you. Also try contacting comedian Adam Hills, he has interpreters at his performances.

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