On Thursday 10 March 2022, Access All Areas (AAA) and Disability Arts Online (DAO) brought an outstanding group of talented and innovative arts leaders to London’s Battersea Arts Centre. After decades of exclusion and very little representation, this event was well received by the arts industry and was the start of addressing the lack of senior practitioners and performers with learning disabilities and autism in the arts. It was also a celebration of their work and how they will revolutionise the landscape of the arts industry. The conversations were headed by nine learning disabled and autistic leaders from Access All Areas Transforming Leadership programme.
They shared their experiences and offered practical action for change for arts organisations that will ensure learning disabled and autistic voices are at the heart of the cultural sector. There were also practical discussions on how to upskill existing executive leaders across the arts and how organisational accessibility could be improved.
The following 10 steps aim to enable venues and companies to transform their leadership.
Where are the access obstacles in your organisation?
If you think some part of your work is not accessible, why is that? Get advice and training from disabled people who are trained consultants.
It can be very uncomfortable to start understanding your own unconscious ableism.
But be brave! Conversations with people about their access needs might feel uncomfortable at first, and it can be difficult to have conversations with yourself about changing your behaviour. But to make a change, you need to understand what change is needed.
Having someone leading beside you with lived experience can bring lots of new ideas.
You might think you know best as a director. Perhaps you do know best in a lot of things. But if you don’t have the lived experience of every community you’re seeking to reach, then you probably don’t know best about everything.
A co-leadership model can make room for learning disabled people to bring their lived experience to leadership conversations, while still being backed up by more traditional expertise. This also helps other learning disabled people to see themselves reflected in your organisation, which can make them feel more welcome as audience, artists, and participants.
Lived experience is valuable.
No thank you, I would not like to be paid with tea and sandwiches. If you need my lived experience as a disabled person to help diversify your organisation, your participant groups, your board, or your audiences, then that means my lived experience is valuable to you.
Recognise that. Pay for it. Give it an appropriate job title. If you do this properly, you will be able to find funding to help cover the costs.
Many people don’t learn through talking and reading. They learn through doing.
If you want viewpoints on your strategic direction from people who aren’t used to strategy meetings, then think about using accessible workshops to unpick and simplify complex ideas.
If we want equitable access to work, then there must be a system in place to meet individual access needs, always.
If a learning disabled colleague needs support, remember that it might not be your job to be a support worker. I would not like to get stuck with my manager as my support worker.
Use creative support workers, support mentors, personal assistants, job coaches, or digital access tools to help make the workplace more accessible, whenever it’s needed.
Access to Work (and Arts Council England project grants) can help pay for this.
Many training programmes are not accessible to learning disabled and neurodiverse people. Consider offering mentorship or training to learning disabled or neurodiverse colleagues, to make up for the lack of this in the rest of the industry.
Taking the time to bring people along with you is better for everyone, and leads to better work.
Prepare in advance. Give extra time, and maybe extra meetings, to learning disabled colleagues so they can prepare with support workers. Share notes or materials in advance of meetings. Start each meeting by giving an overview of what you’ll be talking about, why, and how you expect people could engage.
People with similar lived experience should have a space to share their leadership journey, in private.
Words can stop people from joining a conversation.
Be ready to change the way you speak and write. Use an easy-read format when it’s helpful. Avoid big words. Avoid jargon or acronyms. Avoid metaphors. Use bullet points or shorter sentences. But only do this when it’s useful – not everyone will need easy-read, for example.