Fair Play Symposium Review: Where is the equity and inclusion in diversity?

What can I say? What should I say? For a fair play symposium, I have to say that the treatment of myself and fellow artists with disabilities was pretty… unfair.

 

In February, Diversity Arts Australia along with Creative Victoria hosted a Fair Play Symposium in Melbourne. This event launched Creative Victoria’s ‘Fair Play’ program’, which offers two years of equity and inclusive training to 20 creative organisations in Victoria. You can read more about the program here.

 

Thanks to Regional Arts Victoria and Murray Arts, I was offered a promo ticket to attend the symposium. As a regional emerging theatre maker, performer and teaching artist who is totally blind, I grab any opportunity that comes my way which will benefit my arts practice and allow me to network with others in the industry. So I was keen to get ideas, and hoped to be able to have input into the discussions – sharing from my own, rare experience. As an attendee with a disability it was made clear early on that too many people didn’t consider our so-called minority group a priority. If you are involved with the arts in some way – be that a practicing artist, someone who works in marketing or a person who works front of house at a theatre – please, please stay with me to have a read and a ponder, because it’s you I am writing to. You need to read this.

 

The first shock I received was whilst planning to attend the symposium, I learnt that provisions had not been made for potential attendees with blindness or low vision. A professional audio description (AD) service provider had been in contact with Diversity Arts Australia before I even knew I would be in attendance, to ask whether or not they would set aside a budget for AD and a sighted guide around the venue, as another blind artist had expressed interest in the symposium. DVA said they would not do this, but could offer a friend/sighted companion a free ticket. Thankfully, after I wrote to them explaining that locating food, bathrooms and generally avoiding getting lost, as well as being made aware of any visual displays in presentations is just as important as captioning and Auslan interpretation, they agreed to cover the cost of this service. Thanks to the representative from DVA who made this happen. However, this situation should not have occurred in the first place, and it is more common than you might think. I shouldn’t expect a “friend” to give up two days of their week so they can describe an event for free. Furthermore, refusing to pay trained professionals – who also need to make a living and who are qualified to know what sort of information and assistance I will require – is inconceivable. We need to live in a world where these provisions are standard practice, or at the very least, when the service is requested it should not be questioned. Just make it happen! I’m the person who lives with the disability, so stop making assumptions about what accommodations I do and don’t need because I – the person with lived experience – am far better qualified to make that call. While I am an experienced independent traveller, had I not had someone to guide me around the rather large venue with multiple levels, I might have been in a panic every time I needed to locate a bathroom, find the catered food or move to sessions in various rooms throughout the venue. In a crowded space, especially when it is a crowd of unfamiliar people in an unfamiliar environment, I can’t easily get somebody’s attention when I require assistance. There were also occasions during talks when visual displays such as power points were utilised, and without somebody to describe these I may have missed vital information. With all this in mind, and considering one third of the symposium was supposed to focus on the inclusion of people with disabilities, access for blind participants should have been implemented immediately after it was requested.

 

I was mortified to hear remarks such as “We just can’t employ people with disabilities or make our work accessible for them. It just isn’t a priority for us and we don’t have the resources.” Okay… Why were you at the fair play symposium then? If you don’t want to discuss strategies for making your work diverse and accessible, don’t come to an event that is designed for just that purpose. Someone else could have had your ticket who actually wants to make us a priority. Also, I enjoy art both as an audience member but also as a practicing artist. Are you saying that you don’t care for my work or the skills I could bring to your organisation? Are you saying you don’t think I would be interested to come and look at your work? Sorry to shock you but you are actually quite wrong. I love supporting art created by other people but unfortunately, I am often prevented from doing so because no effort is made to ensure it is accessible.

 

The last two sessions on the last day were related to intersectionality. Quick definition: Intersectionality relates to the interconnecting nature of social categories such as race, gender and disability. So, it’s about recognising that we must make provisions to ensure all of these groups are included in society, but also recognising that some people might fit into multiple categories. For example, an Indigenous Australian who uses a wheelchair would fit into the category of someone with a racial difference as well as a person with a disability. As I listened to these talks, I couldn’t help reflect on the irony: I didn’t feel that Diversity Arts Australia demonstrated intersectionality well at all during the symposium. At the end of each day participants were segregated into separate debrief sessions where we could reflect on events of the day. People with disabilities went off together, people with culturally diverse backgrounds gathered as a group and so on and so on. At no point were we able to come together and share those reflections. One of the speakers made an observation: “Looking around at this audience I’d say we have the interested people in the room; we need to get the disinterested in here.” To be honest, I don’t think the disinterested would have had their eyes opened by attending this symposium, because there was no time where we could all debrief together. Sure, we should be allowed some time to connect with those from our own minority group, but the constant segregation demonstrated the very opposite of equity and inclusion. It also meant that those who fit into more than one of these categories had to make a choice about which group they would connect with. Perhaps the event organisers might like to revisit the definition of “intersectionality” and how to put this into practice.

 

Still along the lines of intersectionality: I was astounded when I heard that the organisations who are selected for the ‘Fair Play’ project only receive training for one of the categories in question. Meaning that if a company decides they would like training in making their art more inclusive for people with linguistic and culturally diverse backgrounds, they cannot receive training in disability access. How is that encouraging equity and inclusive art? And it certainly isn’t demonstrating that “intersectionality” thing they are apparently so passionate about.

 

I also couldn’t help noticing that during the breaks, aside from the few people I met in disability debriefs and attendees who were acquainted with my audio describers, NOBODY came to talk to me. If I was a non-disabled white Australian at that event, and I saw someone with a different cultural background; someone in a wheelchair; someone with a guide dog… I would take the opportunity to walk up to them and say “Hi, I work at a theatre/art gallery/ library etc, can we talk about your access requirements and whether there’s anything my organisation can do to ensure our venue and works are fully accessible?” Come on folks! Make some new friends and meet some new colleagues whilst enjoying your cup of coffee. Use your initiative. We don’t bite and I assure you, my condition is not contagious: you won’t catch blindness by talking to me; my guide dog won’t eat you. COME. AND. TALK. TO. US!

 

In conclusion, I am an emerging artist with a disability. I hoped the ‘Fair Play Symposium’ would be a place where I could network with others whilst sharing and learning strategies to utilise when advocating for equity and inclusion in the arts. I was not satisfied when those with lived experience of the chosen minority groups were segregated and unable to share our reflections with those participating who needed to hear them. The organisers should not have assumed that people with certain disabilities either wouldn’t come or wouldn’t require the services they requested. Nor did they consider the fatigue brought on by these events and the extra concentration and energy used by those who are disabled and chronically ill. Some were unable to even participate in the debrief sessions and some could barely focus if they were present. Diversity Arts Australia and Creative Victoria should have consulted further with Arts Access Victoria during the planning process. I think this symposium proved that it’s time for arts organisations and artists to re-think their approach to equity, inclusion and diversity. Where is the equity and inclusion in diversity?

 

For further recommendations regarding accessibility specifically related to blindness and low vision, please read this article written by blind critic Olivia Muscat following a community engagement workshop run by Description Victoria.

Micaela’s Monday Musings: Part 2

Another Monday, another addition to this slowly growing collection of Micaela’s Monday Musings. And to make up for the fact that I haven’t posted anything in over a month, I’ve written you a nice long piece with lots of anecdotes! Lucky you! Also they’re just musings so I’m not apologising if it seems all over the place!

 

Something I have found myself feeling very passionate about lately is how drama can encourage creativity, body awareness and good communication skills during early childhood development. I believe this is important for all children but at the moment I am particularly focusing on the benefits this would have on blind children, as I don’t believe much research has been done on this at all, if any.

 

As I am a long way off from setting up a drama program for blind young people, and don’t have any readings to refer to on this topic specifically, I have started with what appears to be the only potential sources within my reach: Family holiday videos.

 

When my siblings and I were quite young, our Dad was often glued to the video camera when we went away. Or if he was busy interacting with his family, that faithful device would usually be set down somewhere close by; capturing some of the most fun moments, the most embarrassing… and some of the most boring too!

 

As well as feelings of nostalgia and laughing or cringing at the weird things we did as kids, it’s interesting to note some of the little bits of character development (aha Good use of acting terminology there Micaela) that take place during these videos.

 

In a couple of the videos, we can be seen visiting Australia Zoo in Queensland. My brother, being a huge Crocodile Hunter fan, was eagerly touching and feeding any animals he could get his hands on, whilst my sister and I were not always so keen. We were fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to hold and feed a macaw. In case anyone doesn’t know, it’s a fairly big, noisy bird and the idea was that we would let it sit on our shoulder, hold a peanut between our lips, and allow the bird to grab this with it’s beak. Well… four-year-old Micaela was not having any of that! I was terrified. I refused to even just hold the bird. So, my Mum, along with the very generous staff member holding the bird, patiently worked on convincing me to at least touch it. As I was extremely nervous and had no way of knowing exactly how far away the bird was from my hand, Mum gently placed her hand under mine, so she was able to help guide me and make sure I felt right to the end of it’s long tail, without having complete hold of my hand and dragging it to where it needed to go, which would have been less effective. A similar approach was taken when my sister became anxious about holding a snake.

 

Another interesting example of desensitising occurred at the beach when every time a wave splashed onto the feet of three-year-old Micaela, I would have a melt down and beg my Aunt who came with us on that particular holiday to pick me up so I didn’t have to experience the texture of sand and water covering my feet. What did my Aunt do? She sat down in the shallows, holding me so that I was secure, but still made to endure the small waves. Naturally, I still objected for a long time, but eventually with the right encouragement, I began to get used to the sensation of waves flowing over my ankles.

 

The above scenarios are examples of receiving necessary assistance to overcome fears and take risks. However, there are times in life where children and adults alike must be allowed to independently take risks and perform their own problem solving without intervention from others. And here is a perfect time for a final moment from Dad’s collection of holiday memories:

 

So, back to three-year-old Me again, this time in our holiday apartment. Keeping in mind that my Dad is obviously following me with the video camera, so there is someone watching me the whole time, but he remains silent and I am therefore oblivious to the fact that he is present. I can be seen walking, rather unsteadily on my feet, towards the front door, where I find one of my Mum’s sandals. I try putting my feet in the toe end, but quickly realise this is wrong and correct my error. I then walk out the front door and fall over. After picking myself up I continue on my merry way for a few seconds before I must decide it’s time to go back inside. I wander back and forth for some time, feeling around for the front door. I know it’s there somewhere; I can hear my older siblings playing rather noisily and the television can be heard in the background too, I just have to find that door! Eventually, I do, and make my way in, announcing at the top of my voice that I fell over as if I expect the whole world to stop for a few seconds and admire my bravery.

 

I relay this story to show an example of me – the blind person – experimenting, making mistakes, and coming up with solutions to my own problems. Meanwhile my Dad – the sighted person – looked on, ready to support his child or stop her from injuring herself if necessary, but giving her the opportunity to sort herself out first.

 

Unfortunately, it is too common for sighted folk to assume when we need help, what sort of help we require, and that they are there to protect us from taking any risks at all. Last year during my secondary school drama classes, I was given the task of presenting a five minute solo performance. I selected a plastic takeaway coffee cup as my prop. After practicing my piece a few times in a carpeted room, I performed in front of my teachers and classmates in the auditorium with a wooden floor, which I had not rehearsed in. Had my brain been properly switched on it may have occurred to me that when I reached the part in my performance where the character through their coffee cup in anger, it was going to roll away. Needless to say, there was an unplanned audience participation moment part way through where I was crawling around on my hands and knees whilst the onlookers shouted “to your left a bit more! Now reach out a bit further!” As if the experience itself wasn’t humiliating enough, my teachers told me in front of my classmates that in future I should tie props to my wrists to ensure I would never lose them. It didn’t matter how much I assured them that I knew what had caused the problem and how to deal with it in future, weeks later they were still asking me to tie props to my wrists during the final exam… not sure how they thought this would work considering my two main props for said exam were a chair and a chest!

 

The point is, school drama became an environment where I didn’t feel free to experiment as much as my peers. I felt pressured to always get things right first go because otherwise it was assumed I was incapable of doing a task, and that’s not how it should be. Throughout our lives we are constantly learning from our mistakes, but that’s okay. Not realising that the cup would role away on the wooden floor had nothing to do with blindness and everything to do with me not considering the environment I would be performing in. Sure, the fact that I couldn’t see where it rolled to meant that it was harder for me to locate it, but in my head, I was already thinking of strategies to prevent this in future, and I knew it wouldn’t be a problem for the final exam because none of my props were round and three dimensional shaped. As a creator and performer, I need to be allowed as much experimentation and risk taking as my sighted colleagues. I have to problem solve all the time, like how am I going to book this ticket if the website’s not accessible? How will I get to the shops when I can’t take my familiar route while the road is blocked off? How will I give my kitchen floor a thorough clean after dropping a jar of honey when it is very likely that I will leave some behind in the initial clean? How will I orientate myself to this new and unfamiliar performance set? I think you get the idea… I’m pretty used to making mistakes, encountering problems and solving them. Please believe that I know my own mind and be assured that if I need your help, I will ask for it or accept your offer gladly. But if I come up with a solution, don’t rule it out just because the blind person thought of it… let’s give it a go first!

Micaela’s Monday Musings: Part 1

Hello readers! Welcome to both my new blog and more specifically to Micaela’s Monday Musings! Before any of you regular blogging people get too excited, I’ll just point out that I don’t know if I’ll update this segment weekly; just whenever ideas come to me. But just think, every Monday when you’re struggling to come to terms with the early start for work or getting the kids off to school or whatever you do on a Monday, you can think “Maybe, just maybe, Micaela will decide to post some Monday musings today.” Won’t that just brighten up your Monday?

 

Did someone say ego? Sorry… I don’t know what you’re talking about!

 

Righto… here we go with Micaela’s first ever Monday Musings…

 

I recently discovered what it feels like to really love a job. Don’t worry, I still adore holidays and quiet weekends. But I don’t procrastinate or feel a sense of dread every time I open my computer to complete a work related task. I actually just spent my weekend doing a heap of writing for my job and I can’t think of another way I would have preferred to spend the time. I even had to force myself to take breaks, where as I used to long for those moments when I could just sit down and read a good book or watch Netflix!

 

“Micaela, you’re joking, right?”

“No.”

“Okay, so, what brought on this sudden change?”

 

I believe the answer is quite simple… I have found something I am passionate about. Such a cliché, I know!

 

Quick history lesson about me: I tried a bachelor of music at the beginning of this year, I think mainly because I had subconsciously convinced myself that it would be impossible to try what, deep down, I really wanted to do. It became clear soon after commencing this degree that I was in the wrong place.

 

So what happened next? I’ll tell you what happened…

 

I joined local physical theatre classes, connected with some local theatre/drama type folk, and five months later, it turns out I am in the process of creating a one person show, to be performed in a theatre near you soon hopefully… haha we’ll see about that! I definitely feel I am where I should be now though.

 

One thing that has decided this for me is the realisation that advocating for myself no longer constantly feels like a chore. At uni, explaining to the same people over and over again why I required braille music to complete my studies always felt exhausting and tedious. I think that, had I really wanted to succeed in the music industry, I would have kept fighting to be treated the same as any other musician, and worked to ensure I had all the resources I would need to be successful. But the more I fought for those things, the more I realised I didn’t want them. Now, in the theatre scene, in those moments when I have to find different strategies for understanding a visual concept or I face barriers due to sighted colleagues making assumptions about what will or won’t work for me, the explaining and advocating often seems more tolerable. It gives people an insight into my world, and in turn I often learn about how they experience things, too. I also feel that I am fighting to succeed in a field I am interested in. Sure, it can still be frustrating and energy zapping, but the cause is worth fighting for – to further my career and, who knows, maybe even make things easier for future totally blind people to access drama, physical theatre, and the arts in general.

 

To sum up, my recent revelation is that you’ll know when you really love something, because you will fight to make it happen no matter what challenges and misunderstandings you face. Sorry, that sounds like another dreadful cliché!

 

I reckon that’s all for this post. If you’ve got any musings of your own, feel free to pop them in the comments. Happy Monday!