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Case study: disabled-led theatre company

Name

Graeae Theatre Company.

Organisation type

Producing theatre company with own offices and rehearsal space.

Graeae building

Graeae’s building

Interviewee

All direct quotes are provided by Lizzy Leggat, Access Manager at Graeae. Additional information provided by various staff members.

Background

Graeae Theatre Company was established in 1980, as one of the UK’s first disabled-led theatre companies. Today, they have an international reputation, delivering large-scale outdoor pieces with international partners, co-producing shows with major mainstream theatres, touring, as well as offering a range of training initiatives for D/deaf and disabled writers and performers. Bradbury Studios, Graeae’s offices and rehearsal space is based in Hoxton, East London. Graeae employs around a dozen permanent staff at its offices as well as working with hundreds of self-employed performers, writers, theatre-makers and access workers.

Overview of experience of Access to Work

Graeae is extremely experienced with Access to Work claims. It has put in almost 80 applications, nearly all of which have been successful. Graeae regularly supports both employees and self-employed applicants through the process of applying to Access to Work.

“We support all staff, employees or self-employed with an Access to Work application, even if they were just running a workshop for two days. We try and remove as much of the burden as possible so they don’t have to answer loads of questions about their impairment which can be distressing.

As an employer, you should go for it, and support your employees to apply for Access to Work, you’re very likely to get it. The biggest barrier is the emotional toll it takes on individuals, but as an organisation, this shouldn’t be a problem, it’s a small job for your finance team. Generally, as an employer, all you need to do is claim money back.”

Group of actors in rehearsal

Blood Wedding cast members in rehearsals with Jenny Sealey.

What the application process is like

“The individual artist or employee fills in the initial form, which isn’t too complicated, provided your access requirements aren’t literacy related. I would always advise not to give too much detail on the initial form, as far as we can tell it doesn’t really get recorded. Just keep it straightforward: ‘I am deaf, I require interpreters to do my job’. As the designated third-party, I am able to respond to the follow-up questions which come in, at which point I can provide more detail on what support is needed, how much it will cost, what the work is etc.

To become the designated third-party, the applicant and me have to sign a consent form to confirm that I can handle queries relating to the claim. We have had some push back on that with Access to Work Advisors sometimes asking why the applicant needs a third-party, but the initial form only asks ‘if’ not ‘why’ they need a third-party, so there’s not usually a problem.”

Timeline

Graeae have had claims completed in as little as two weeks. In the worst-case scenario, it has taken six months to put an application through for a core member of staff. This was because of the inconsistencies of Access to Work, rather than the complexity of the claim. Usually, most claims take somewhere in between these two extremes.

“Provided a self-employed applicant is eligible, I’ve found the application process takes a similar amount of time for self-employed people as it does with regular employees.”

What support was applied for

Most of the support Graeae has applied for has been for various types of support worker for different access needs and working situations. They have also had a number of successful claims for taxis for travelling to, from and during work. They have had some small claims for equipment accepted, such as an accessible laptop stand and a yoga mat for sitting on. Specialist furniture, such as a day-bed, they usually consider as being a ‘reasonable adjustment’, so part of their legal duties as an employer.

Most of the time Graeae-supported applications have got the full amount they have applied for, unless the person meets the upper cap (currently £59,200).

“The only things that have been refused are taxi claims, if we haven’t been able to get the correct medical evidence, which proves a need for it in time. But it’s not super common.”

Group of disabled people in procession performance

Graeae Theatre Company. This Is Not For You. Photo by Dawn McNamara

Main problems and barriers when applying

“We find that a lot of emerging artists aren’t aware of Access to Work. Unfortunately, these are the people most likely to be ineligible due to the lower earnings limit. If they don’t meet this, we have to cover the access costs ourselves in full. This is a major problem for people who are early-career. If you need Access to Work in order to be able to earn enough to qualify for Access to Work, what can you do? It’s a cyclical dilemma.”

“Not having one person who handles all of our claims is one of the biggest problems. So much time is wasted because a large part of the application process is explaining what our organisation is, what a rehearsal is, what we mean by a tech rehearsal, what the support worker actually does etc. You have to explain everything about the industry, the company and the work every time.”

“It seems many of the staff responding to the initial application have so little knowledge of disability. I’ve been asked some ridiculous questions. We had someone who self-identifies as a polio-survivor and the advisor asked ‘so they have polio now?’ and I had to explain ‘Of course not. I don’t think they’d be at work if they had polio.’ They just don’t know.”

“Ideally, they’d have impairment-specific knowledge of what certain people need. But at the very least, what not to ask would be useful.”

Graeae’s top tips

  1. So few self-employed people in the arts will have a business plan. I just quote the guidance about only needing to provide a CV and that has always been sufficient.
  2. Apply to Access to Work, but don’t assume you’ll get it, so budget for the access costs yourself in case you don’t. You should have an access line in any budget, in the same way you have a line for travel, catering etc.
  3. If you’re a larger organisation and you want to employ more disabled people, train someone up in handling the Access to Work claims for any current or future employees who might need it. Having one person who handles all claims makes it much more efficient.
  4. Try to do everything relating to the claims in writing. Then you have a paper-trail which you can refer to if there is any back-and-forth with an advisor, or the claim gets lost. A spreadsheet with all the claims and their status, where I log the latest updates, when I’ve sent certain information etc. is really helpful.