New report highlights slump in disabled audiences’ confidence in returning to arts venues

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A new report based on the responses of more than 4,000 disabled people to Indigo’s Act 2 survey has revealed a worrying disparity between disabled and non-disabled attitudes to returning to cultural venues post-lockdown.

Photograph of a crowd throwing their hands in the air as they are directed to by a performer on stage

Audience warm-up at  Venture Arts/Carousel’s Creative Minds North conference in 2017. Scenes like these are likely to be very rare for the foreseeable future. Photograph: Martin Livesey, Venture Arts

Indigo’s Act 2 survey asked audiences for their views on booking tickets now, returning to live cultural events with social distancing, and experiencing culture in different formats. Developed in consultation with numerous cultural organisations, and taking feedback on webinars and facilitated online meetings, the survey was offered free to organisations in the UK. 15% of the total respondents identified as D/deaf, disabled or living with a long term health condition. Andrew Miller, the first UK Government Disability Champion for Arts & Culture and co-founder of #WeShallNotBeRemoved has analysed the data and written a full report on the findings.

In February 2020 Arts Council England announced that disabled people made up 12% of National Portfolio Organisation audiences during 2018/19. Whilst encouraging that it is a significant proportion, it still represents a large underrepresentation compared to 21% of the wider population being disabled. The report finds that even that proportion is under threat post-Covid:

‘The headline finding is that 77% of disabled audiences consider themselves to be “vulnerable to Coronavirus” whilst only 28% of non-disabled audiences do. This represents a huge differential that conveys vastly different priorities and concerns between disabled and non-disabled audiences as they think about booking tickets for cultural events. And with good reason. According to the Office for National Statistics, disabled people accounted for over one third of all UK Coronavirus deaths between March and May – a grim and shockingly under-reported statistic’

The report also highlights what measures need to be taken, in order for disabled audiences to feel safe visiting cultural venues:

‘The key concerns that will guide this choice is established as availability, accessibility and hygiene of toilets (61%), confidence that disabled seating is available within social distancing regulations (52%) and priority access if queue management is employed (51%).’

Whilst a majority of disabled audiences would consider a return to venues with enforced social distancing and appropriate hygiene measures in place, as many as 26% of those surveyed stated they wouldn’t at all until a vaccine or treatment for Covid-19 had been developed.

Other disparities in disabled and non-disabled opinions are uncovered by the survey. For instance, fewer disabled respondents regard online events as less attractive than live events compared with non-disabled people, though the former had lower levels of confidence using online platforms.

Miller summarises:

‘Taken as a whole, this new survey confirms that Coronavirus has magnified the inequalities facing disabled audiences and compromises cultural participation and engagement. The evident slump in disabled people’s confidence also presents a major problem for the arts sector. Losing up to 12% of your audience isn’t good news for anyone, especially at a time when every ticket sale will count when venues re-open.

So how should the industry, government and national funders respond? I would suggest significant inducements be prepared to re-engage disabled audiences. For a start, any government-backed sector bailouts should come with inclusive strings attached. As Disability Champion, I have long been calling for the creation of a Disability Cultural Charter and the introduction of a National Disability Arts Access scheme. Perhaps it’s now time to deploy such measures in readiness for when disabled audiences, like me, are ready to return?’

In related news, the Government today announced a £1.57 billion support package to help protect the futures of UK theatres, galleries, museums and other cultural venues. New guidance on a phased return for the performing arts is expected from the Government shortly. Some galleries and museums are already able to re-open with social distancing rules enforced, with the National Gallery in London the first major institution to re-open its doors on 8 July.


The report on disabled audiences by Andrew Miller is available here.

Indigo’s Act 2 report is available in full here.