Australians with a disability are sometimes forgotten but a handful of organisations are championing the cause of arts accessibility.

After the house lights are dimmed and the actors make their entrance to the stage, it is customary for theatregoers to remain silent until the curtain call. But for Maribel Steel, who has been legally blind since the age of seventeen, the whispered commentary provided by her companion is integral to her understanding of the action that occurs onstage.

“The person that’s with me will describe it, so it’s like making a mind map of what’s going on and my hearing is playing the biggest role in putting it together,” she said. “There’s been the odd time where people will shush us, and my partner will turn around and say ‘she’s blind’, and people feel very embarrassed. But we try not to talk loudly and I find on the whole that people are very considerate.”

When the degenerative eye condition Retinitis Pigmentosa took hold of Steel’s vision as a teenager, she was flown to England to receive a radical bee-sting therapy, but the effects of the incurable disease were unpreventable. Despite initially fearing the drastic impact of the condition, Steel has built a successful career as an author and speaker, and still enjoys the ordinary offerings of life – including the arts.

It was only last year, when she saw Melbourne-based Magnormos’ production of Flower Children: the story of the Mamas and Papas, that Steel first experienced an audio described performance. The experience included an emailed description of the characters and visual aesthetic, real-time commentary through a small earpiece, and a tactile behind-the-scenes tour. Read Maribel’s first-hand account here.

“I couldn’t believe the difference that it made to hear the detail. My partner would say ‘they’re just doing this or that’ and I’d say ‘I know!’” she said. “It’s a wonderful service, which I find very heartwarming. It’s a little limited in the ones we can go to and it would be nice to have a little bit more on offer.”

The Vision Australia Audio Description Service operates in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra. According to Michael Ward, the National Coordinator, there will be nearly 150 audio described performances around the nation this year, as well as increased access to art galleries, cinema and television. While the initiative might be expanding gradually, Steel said that lack of publicity and affordability are detrimental to its general success. 

It makes sense to abolish this barrier, as it is beneficial to everyone. More people gain access to the arts, and Australian performance venues get more bums on seats. Sadly though, much of the goodwill surrounding accessibility never manifests into a reality. As a result, there is a perpetual sense of exclusivity and ‘the other’, according to Sophie Clausen, Access Development Manager of Accessible Arts NSW. “If you look at any subscription season, I’d say there’s maybe two shows [that are audio described], and for a number of reasons, there’s often only two seats for wheelchair access. Whereas, I look at the weekend schedule, see what’s on, and then I can usually go and see it provided that it’s not booked out,” she said. “People would like to go to the arts, but they won’t drop everything because you put on one [accessible] show. To be truly equitable, people should be able to go to a show when they want to go to a show”.

Part of Clausen’s role is to broker relationships between the disability and arts sectors, and to provide opportunities for people to participate as either audience members or artists. Accessible Arts’ website is a tangible measure of its success: alongside a list of educational resources and events is an extensive database of arts creators and facilitators. “We’ve been reaching out to the arts sector for a long time now, it’s about providing information, education and advocacy,” Clausen said. “But I guess our ultimate goal is for these services to be fully integrated, and for there to be a real representation so that we’re engaging with people with a disability. Arts and culture are for all of us; it’s essential and I think we’ll be better if we have more inclusive engagement.”

A handful of organisations have already seized the new business opportunities made available by positive legislative changes, the conversation surrounding the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the awareness of Australia’s aging population. Some of New South Wales’ premier institutions are paving the way: the Sydney Opera House, Art Gallery of NSW, Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Sydney Theatre Company. The latter has shown a particular commitment, establishing internal protocol and actively collaborating with external access partners.

“We are in regular contact with [Accessible Arts] and they can help us to understand particular patron’s needs and how we can communicate with them appropriately,” said Tim McKeough from Sydney Theatre Company. “We also obviously offer access to any patrons with specific access requirements; for example, patrons requiring level access, using wheelchairs, or if we have a patron with an additional health issue or illness, we accommodate them as required.”

At an even larger level, the biggest international production companies are also implementing accessibility initiatives. Earlier this year, Disney held an autism-friendly performance of The Lion King at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney. The event was a year in the making, and was organised in conjunction with the nation’s leading education and advocacy body, Autism Awareness. The company’s Executive Manager, Elizabeth Sarian, said that it was a rare and special experience for the children and their families. “Kids with autism find it very difficult to sit still and to be confined, and the level of noise and lighting that’s in the show would generally be a problem,” she said. “So for parents its really difficult because when their child is having this huge meltdown, often it just goes down to the behavior of that child as opposed to them actually having a developmental disorder.”

Families travelled from across Australia to take part in the special matinee, and for its entire length, the theatre was enveloped by a magical excitement and happiness. Even more than that though, there was a tangible feeling of inclusion and acceptance. Read Lizi Jackson’s first-hand account here.

“Nobody had any issues whatsoever, there were no dramas and no judgement, and so it was a really welcoming environment,” said Sarian. “A performance like this helps to build the confidence of both the parents and the child to then be able to do things in a mainstream environment, which is the ultimate goal.”

While the show’s structure and duration remained the same, the visual and audio elements were modified to accommodate those on the autism spectrum. Patrons were also free to move throughout the venue, and a ‘chill out’ space was created in the Dress Circle. Theatre staff received special training, and Disney and Autism Awareness provided an entourage of volunteers to ensure the event’s success. When the curtain opened at Australia’s first main-stage autism-friendly performance, an understated benchmark was made for inclusive arts. Off the back of its success in Sydney, The Lion King will also give autism-friendly performances when it tours to Brisbane and Melbourne next year. Already, other companies like the Sydney Opera House and the Ensemble Theatre at Kirribilli have programmed similar autism-friendly performances this season, and Sarian hopes that the initiative will be adopted more broadly.

The popularity of the services that increase arts accessibility necessitates full and permanent integration. Yet, there is a long road ahead in terms of funding, education and implementation. While she said that it wouldn’t be a ‘tick-box’ solution, Maribel Steel is optimistic for the future. After all, the arts offer more than just entertainment. “It’s getting better, but people will always say ‘why are you going to the cinema or theatre if you can’t see’. It doesn’t stop you enjoying the experience,” she said. “A lot of people I know who are vision impaired or blind still love to go, it’s about partaking in what sighted people are doing and also enjoying being out in the community.”