Accessibility should be part of everyday arts practice

The English National Ballet’s My First Coppélia makes use of symbol resources, which supports the inclusion of people with a communication difficulties. Photograph: ENB

For many children and young people, particularly those with learning difficulties, attending a theatre performance can be a confusing and stressful experience. Sara Ryan from the University of Warwick has described the experience of many parents taking their children into such public places as being “contingent, unsatisfactory and incomplete”.

She found in her discussions with parents that five key themes recurred: strategies, visibility of impairment, unconventional behaviour, sympathetic others and inclusion. Parents, carers and teachers will know that the whole process can be made more meaningful, enjoyable and productive if these issues are addressed and children are helped to prepare for the performance and given support during it.

There is much that theatres and theatrical companies can do to address these needs. Many have done so through special performances at which adjustments are made to lighting, sound, effects and in some cases narrative. These events are often advertised as autism-friendly, but it’s not only children on the autism spectrum who may benefit.

These “relaxed” performances are a welcome development but can be difficult to finance where venues perhaps feel that audience numbers won’t fill the theatre; others may feel less attracted to what they may see as a disrupted performance. Alongside relaxed performances then, important as they are, we need to ensure that all performance is made as inclusive as possible.

Just as schools moved from integration of children with disabilities – building ramps, converting buildings – to becoming inclusive schools with the needs of all considered in advance, so too must theatres and performers. For example, if strobe lighting creates problems for those with photo-sensitive epilepsy, should we simply offer one alternative performance without the strobe lighting; or should the lighting for all performances be adjusted so that the frequency of change or the type of effect does not trigger seizures or cause discomfort?

Some children need other kinds of support and may then be able to attend an inclusive performance alongside their peers. One resource that can help to make performances more inclusive is the use of graphic symbols. By providing support activities for use before or after the performance, these symbols, such as Makaton, PCS and Widgit, may support the inclusion of people with a range of communication difficulties, not only people who use alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) or those who have learning disabilities.

Graphic symbols have been developed mainly within the AAC community for many years but have more recently migrated to other settings and are now widely used in mainstream schools, with young children and with those for whom English is an additional language. In our case, Widgit created symbol resources, available as free downloads for English National Ballet’s My First Coppélia.

One group of resources relates to the comic ballet in particular, with symbol synopses, character sheets and information about props and scenery. Other resources deal with ballet in general, including illustrations of the key positions and gestures. A third group of symbol resources deals with going to the theatre and are likely to be of use in many different performance contexts, where it may be necessary to explain to young children or to those with learning difficulties the particular conventions associated with theatre-going.

Developing such resources need neither be complex nor necessarily resource-demanding and there are many software tools such as Symwriter and Clicker that can make the process more rapid and achievable.

The use of signing can also help to make performances more accessible for children with learning difficulties as well as those who are D/deaf . This can be a welcome development for other children, since signing of various kinds is now familiar to many through children’s television and the presence of units for hearing impaired in mainstream schools.

Choreographer George Williamson worked with children’s theatre dramaturg Adam Peck to refine and reshape the narrative input to the stage where it was helpful rather than intrusive, and using one of the key danced characters, Dr Coppélius, as the narrator. At a later stage of rehearsals, signing consultant Katja O’Neill joined the team and taught some key British Sign Language to the dancer/narrator, these signs being recognised by many young children and not only those with a hearing impairment.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the My First Coppélia project was the collaborative effort to improve accessibility, with symbol and signing consultants and ballet creatives working on a common task. The challenge for performance companies, however, is to move beyond specially funded projects, however important and successful those might be, so that accessibility becomes built in to everything that the company does – and without the response becoming formulaic or predictable. Accessibility should be part of everyday practice and not just a special event.