The internet isn’t created equal



Are arts organisations creating new barriers to accessibility with their digital offerings asks Getintothis’ Laura Brown.

Art should be available to everyone.

This feels a lot like one of these Barnum statements that it’s difficult to argue against. No matter your physical dexterity, your ability to see, sit, stand, walk, dance, speak or listen, you should be able to access the art and culture you want, and need, to.

If, as we frequently argue in the arts, a cultural life is part of a basic necessity for the soul, then we cannot begin to suggest that there may be physical barriers that stop you enjoying the rich tapestry.

Chances are, if arts, culture and entertainment venues are the last places to reopen, we’re going to be doing much more of our work through digital platforms.

Are we asking about accessibility enough? How much of our audience has a smartphone?

How many people in Liverpool do? What’s their broadband speed?

Do they know how to make their connections secure? Are we filming things in a way that’s low res enough to make it easy to watch on a small screen, but high res enough that you can see it?

Are we assuming everyone’s got a flashy tablet?

We talk a lot about access and accessibility, but there are already massive yawning gaping holes in our coverage.

Talk to any one of your friends who live with a disability and you’ll hear that some are more catered for than others.

Liverpool Arts Diary: Bluecoat, FACT, World Museum – April-May 2020

Performances and theatre companies do open in spaces without disabled access. Pop ups, especially when you use a meanwhile lease on a building that hasn’t lived its best life, can often be in places that you cannot, honestly, say are accessible for all.

When we talk about barriers to access, it isn’t just disability, or rather ability to access, that we need to think about. Culture, religion: they too can create a challenge that impacts on the free access for all agenda.

Mixed bathrooms aren’t OK for many men and women of different faiths.

Mental health and anxiety can create a real issue around simply, physically, walking across a doorway.

Edith Wharton had an actual threshold phobia of crossing thresholds and doorways, but there is a real one in terms of cultural confidence.

I bang on a lot about how important it is as curators, producers, marketers, event managers, gallery owners and the like to think about how accessible we make everything, from who we promote art and culture to, to the language we use in exhibitions and gallery text, to the welcome and how easy we make it to cross that threshold.

Thresholds both physical and virtual can form impassable barriers to some audience members. (Credit: Phong6698 via Flickr, license CC BY-ND 2.0)

We have to make sure each person feels that what is on the other side of that door is for them, that they’re welcome.

The people who are the poorest, most disengaged from mainstream society are often euphemistically described as “hard to reach”. A phrase that makes it sound like society is a Hermes driver who’s tried, but failed, to deliver your parcel and you’re just not answering.

Have you got time to stream a theatre show when you’ve lost two of your gig jobs and your third is an overnight shift in the warehouse where they’re not practising social distancing and you haven’t got the proper gloves or a mask?

The barriers to accessing art and culture are linked with a lot of different things, and it’s the job of everyone in the arts to try to work to reduce them.

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I sometimes wonder if we realise that we’re often the ones installing the barriers, because we, as the people in society with the most agency, are terrified of losing it.

It’s harder to simply recognise the barriers when so many people in the arts are a) not representative of wider society and b) not representative of the people and groups that find it hard to access the arts.

12.6% of people working in the arts say they’re working class, according to Panic! 2018 a two year study now examining inequalities in the arts.

The arts is socially closed, it isn’t a meritocracy, there’s a lot of unpaid work and people who work in the arts tend to be socially exclusive. Yet we do have a habit of positioning ourselves as soothsayers of the vox populi.

I’m not being deliberately obstinate. We do need to be critical of ourselves.

We’re never doing enough, we’re never reaching the people we want to. We work with the best intentions, and some are far better at it that others.

As arts organisations explore ways to continue to engage online in the current crisis, we need to be concerned about the number of barriers to access we’re creating, by virtue of making the same mistakes we made before.

The digital divide is real and it means those hard to reach audiences the arts has done so much to say they’re talking to, might still not be able to access your gig, play, or spoken word event, or exhibition online.

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10% of the adult population in the UK is not online.

There are five basic skill areas that are used to track levels of digital accessibility. This includes the ability to go on a website, to send a message, buy something, find the answer to a question you’re looking for, create something like a picture and share it. 12% of people in the UK have the most basic level of these skills.

Everyone else is somewhere between there and tech whizz kids (and judging by Twitter even then some of those haven’t fully got to grips with things like public messaging and private messaging).

The same barriers to access in our buildings often spread to the screen as well.

The poorest people, the most deprived communities, they’re the ones most likely to access the internet through a smartphone, a smaller screen, not a desktop.

If they’ve got a much older device, will they be able to engage fully with the content we’re putting out? Even if they want to/have the time to?

Have we tested what kind of access issues there are around social platforms?

Online doesn’t automatically mean accessible. (image: Pexels)

YouTube has a pop up that wants you to use the premium version. It’s easy enough to skip past, but are we sure older members, or less digital savvy, or audience members with limited eyesight know this, or do they think YouTube is private?

Are we doing skills training so people know what they can and can’t share, that if they watch a live stream on Facebook someone won’t steal their bank details?

If you’re laughing that someone might think that that’s a question someone asked me in a message when we announced a livestream of a gig two years ago. They were scared I’d be able to hack their computer, or one of the gig goers might.

What language are we using in our social posts around new online works? Is our language very arts focused and technical?

Well, you’re not likely to reach a new audience there, are you, or at least, not one that’s outside your own peer group.

Are we looking into subtitling (Facebook has a good service) or sign language? Are we asking members of our audience with access needs what they need from us, so that those of us who do not live with disability are not making assumptions about what they both need and want?

Do we know how expensive some of these services are? Are we allowing people who aren’t very savvy and aren’t interested in asking the right questions make decisions on software, or are they researching and asking people who know?

Are we working to make social posts accessible? Are we just talking to ourselves and not growing audiences? Are platforms free to use or are they prohibitively expensive?

This is before we even start talking about artists and how we’re paying them and making sure we’re not ripping them off to be seen as some future thinking, forward minded digital focused arts organisation of the future.

Switching to digital events offers an opportunity to reach more people, new and exciting audiences who could be on the other side of the world. And, in truth, a digital strategy and digital delivery is going to be a much greater part of each of our work in the future.

But we need to make sure we’re not creating new barriers to access to replace, and in time, strengthen, the barriers we already have around access to the arts. Because at some point we’ll have to stop saying we’re for everyone.