Ashley Smith-Hammond

January's podcast looks at how Scottish arts organisations are serving audiences with disabilities and what you can learn from some of the great practice that’s taking place across the country.

Creative Scotland are going to require every regularly funded organisation to have an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion plan in place as a condition of funding so it’s an area all arts and cultural organisations will have to start thinking about (if they haven’t already).

January’s podcast looks at how Scottish arts organisations are serving audiences with disabilities and what you can learn from some of the great practice that’s taking place across the country.

A working definition

One of the first things to think about is how disabled audiences are defined. Culture Republic recommend the legal definition in the Equality Act (2010). It states that a person has a disability if: “they have a physical or mental impairment and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”. Though not particularly user friendly, it highlights the wide range of people, conditions, and potential access requirements that are out there and that you have to think about.

Despite the standard wheelchair iconography, disabilities are often invisible. Disabled audiences include people with sensory impairments, progressive conditions, auto-immune conditions, developmental conditions, learning disabilities, mental health conditions, people with HIV, cancer or MS. It’s clear from this short list that lots of disabilities are hidden and that many people who would fit the official definition may not self-define as disabled.

Good practice

To give us a picture of what good practice looks like on the ground we talked to real-life practitioners: Jodie Wilkinson, Public Engagement Co-Ordinator for Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT) and Esther Currie, Marketing and Communications Manger for Macrobert Arts Centre. Both organisations have been part of Creative Scotland’s promoting equalities programme. They stand out for the exemplary work they’re doing to serve audiences with disabilities.

The GFT offers:

  • A regular programme of subtitled and captioned screenings for people that are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Special ‘Take Two’ screenings for families that have children with autism.
  • Access Film Club for people who identify as having autism.
  • Visible Cinema, a monthly Film Club for deaf and hard of hearing audiences.

Macrobert offers:

  • A monthly dementia friendly event.
  • British Sign Language interpreted performances.
  • Accessible dance and drama classes.
  • Touch tours, which allow visually impaired audiences to get a tactile sense of the costumes and scenery in advance of a performance.

Both offer free tickets for carers or support workers.

What can you do?

There are practical, physical and communication barriers that organisations can work to remove to improve access for disabled audiences to an event or venue. An essential first step is to support your staff with additional training. Make sure there is senior support for both formal and informal learning. Organisations need to be able to make mistakes and open themselves up to learning from experience. Both Macrobert and the GFT show a mindset, characterised by openness to new experience, willingness to make mistakes and a desire to learn from experience, which makes the difference in their success.

Culture Republic have created an in depth population profile to support your efforts to connect with disabled audiences and have published guidance and research previously for arts organisations just getting started in this field. Euan’s Guide and flip offer practical training and tips that can give staff more confidence to engage disabled audiences. Additional recommendations in this episode were to: Solar Bear, a specialist theatre company for deaf and hard of hearing audiences and performers and DSDC – the Dementia Services Development Centre at Stirling University.

Running the numbers

If we look at Scotland’s population, the census shows about 20% of people have a long-term activity limiting health issue or disability. About 7% of people in Scotland have a physical disability – but there are only about 120,000 wheelchair users in Scotland. The rest is made up of, 7% deaf or partial hearing loss, 4% mental health conditions, just over 2% blind or partially sighted, 2% learning difficulty, 0.6% developmental disorders, 0.5% learning disability.

Only about 17% of people with a disability are born with their disability and 11% of people with a disability are over 60. So, with age comes the increased likelihood of disability. This is particularly true of acquiring a physical disability (such as sight loss, hearing loss, limited mobility etc.). In contrast, learning difficulties, disabilities and developmental disorders are more common among the younger population – this might be due to diagnosis and increased recognition of these conditions.

Its not just a question of physical access, some people with disabilities may be limited by circumstances. People with a disability are more likely to be economically inactive, retired, to never have worked, to be in the lowest social grades, and to have no qualifications compared to the population. At age 16, young disabled people are at least twice as likely to be not in employment, education or training as their non-disabled peers and three times more likely by the age of 19.

We know from the Scottish Household Survey that disabled people attend and participate in arts and culture in Scotland but it is less than those with neither a long-term illness nor disability. For example, for classical music audiences we see that 8% of those with neither a disability or long-term illness attend but 5% of those with a disability and 4% of those with a long-term illness attend. This trend is consistent across all art forms. In the survey, people with a disability, long-term illness or both said that they didn’t attend  because their health was not good enough.

Culture Republic collects box office data from across the country and this can give us a picture of the booking patterns for disabled audiences. It shows that last year, about 62,000 tickets were sold using a discount code that indicates disability (1% of total tickets). 38% of these were under the catch-all code of ‘disabled’ and 51% were carer tickets. This probably underestimates the actual situation but it gives a rough idea to what is going on.

If you have a box office and want a good idea of what is going on within your audience then have a look at your discount codes and how you use them – the more accurate and clear they are the better the picture you will get. If you don’t have a box office (or even if you do) you can explore the population breakdown in your local area using our interactive map.


Top tips to remember:

  • Disability is more than wheelchairs and a lot of disability is invisible.
  • Don’t be scared to tell people what the situation is at your event or venue. Highlight what you can do and be honest about what you cannot.
  • Finally, being more accessible benefits everyone – not just those with disabilities.

Do check out the resource pack linked to this episode, a downloadable guide around audiences with disabilities, which can help you get started or improve your own practice in this space. You might also be interested in our work with the GFT evaluating their access and equalities measures.


Listen on Soundcloud above or subscribe on iTunes or on Stitcher.

Thanks to Jodie Wilkinson at Glasgow Film Theatre and Esther Currie at Macrobert Arts Centre for sharing their stories. Reach them on Twitter @glasgowfilm and @macrobert.

Audio production by studio engineer Barry Reid – on Twitter @barryspad.

In and out music by Drew Hammond of Mesura Music – on Twitter @DrYouHammond.

Culture Republic is on Twitter @culture_public and presenter Ashley Smith Hammond is on Twitter @AnAshleyAbroad. Use the hashtag #CRpodcast to let us know you’re listening.

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The Culture Republic Podcast by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Main image credit: Welcome by Garry Knight (CC BY 2.0)