Project Overview + Presentation
Welcome to Our Toolkit
This is an Open Sourced living document; a compilation of suggestions and experiences; a toolkit for any Theatre Company creating experiences which aim to be more accessible to the Blind and Low-Vision community in Canada and Beyond. This began as a Ryerson University student project for their Design Solutions Super-course, and was produced in collaboration with Jess Watkin, and Nightwood Theatre Company in Toronto, Ontario.
As a group of four sighted students, we were challenged to aid in increasing accessibility in the Toronto Theatre Community for those who are blind or have low vision. Alone, it was difficult to navigate what solutions were best to implement. However, through conversations with Canadians interested in theatre accessibility, as well as theatre professionals within the Blind and Low-Vision community, we concluded that there is no “one size fits all” solution to accessibility. The experience of each individual is unique; as sighted people we must work to implement a variety of options for those who have low vision or are blind to experience theatre with the autonomy they are entitled to.
For the purpose of our toolkit, we will implement the acronym: BLV, which stands for Blind and Low-Vision. After conversing with Jess Watkin, our accessibility consultant for the formation of this project, we came to the conclusion that there is not one universally accepted term for Blind and Low-Vision folks. Currently, “Blind and Low-Vision” is the most widely used vocabulary in 2020. Throughout the toolkit we will use BLV in place of Blind and Low-Vision for the sake of brevity and consistency.
Bridging the Gap: Creators and Consumers
This toolkit is for those who plan to deliver content accessible to BLV Audiences. It is for sharing methods and tools that work to improve accessibility, and for explaining what doesn’t work for different individual needs on personal and organizational levels. Part of the “gap” we have identified is that many accessible solutions – designed by sighted folks – are too rigid and/or too vague, and the resources for BLV consumers and creators are often buried deep in google search results, making them difficult to find for sighted creators and consumers.
We hope that in providing an open source platform to discuss and exchange information about theatre accessibility, we can share the knowledge we have compiled in the last 12 weeks, and continue to build upon it.
What Inspired this Toolkit?
This toolkit exists to start conversations and better autonomize accessibility within theatre performance. An open sourced format allows everyone’s voice to be heard, and creates a community network specifically supporting BLV experiences of both live and online theatre. We chose Press Books because
of it’s history and commitment of sharing knowledge. We believe that a resource like this toolkit should not belong to any one individual or organization, and could not possibly be a finite or conclusive document. While COVID-19 continues to affect the shape of the performance industry on a global scale, it also presents an opportunity to adapt and revolutionize many aspects of theatre, performance, digital media, and audience relations in order to make more artistic experiences into inclusive experiences.
How to Contribute to the Conversation
After reading this toolkit, perhaps you have suggestions of your own. Maybe you are a theatre creator, or a theatre lover who has worked in accessibility, or faces challenges in accessible theatre yourself. If you have anything to add, we would love to hear from you.
Take this toolkit, make it your own: sign up for a Hypothesis account to propose additions, edits, critiques, or criticism of your own, and join in the conversation. This is a living document – your contributions help bring it to life.
When we started this process, it was incredibly overwhelming. I had no idea where to even begin. It seemed like such a daunting and impossible task. If major theatre companies could not figure out how to make theatre accessible, how could a group of students with little to no budget do it? And what I came to realize is there are ways in which theatre can be made accessible but a lack of effort from the able-bodied theatres. During an interview, someone from The Good Host Program said something that stuck with me, “theatre companies have just decided that Blind and Low Vision people won’t like theatre because we can’t see, not because we don’t actually like theatre.”
When we met with Jess for the first meeting it started with us describing our physical appearance and describing where we were during the call and our interests. This really made me think about, especially in post-COVID world where everything is online, how visual our world really is. This is honestly not really something that I had ever considered in my life and this project has really opened my eyes to a lot of things that we as sighted people take for granted. Working on this project has been a roller-coaster, I felt uncomfortable writing what was not my lived experience. This was something that struggled with this whole project. In the end after having it looked over by Jess Watkin, I do feel proud of what we’ve created and my hope is that it will help give others a starting point to start a conversation about what accessibility looks like in their theatre.
This project started in September during an unprecedented semester of online learning. The first meeting with our team: four sighted students, none of whom had any experience working coding or digital technology design, each of us wondering how we could possibly contribute to a digital solution for Nightwood Theatre’s online season which would increase accessibility for Blind and Low Vision audiences. In twelve weeks, this seemed like an impossibly huge task, and we were right.
Through conversations with Blind theatre advocates like Toronto Based Musician and founder of the Glenvale Players, Murray Powell, and under the guidance of Scholar, Artist, and Accessibility consultant, Jess Watkin, we learned that there is no Band-Aid for ”inclusion” – there is a much larger systemic injustice which needs to be addresses. At this point, I felt overwhelmed and out of place. How can I, an individual with no lived experience of blindness, tackle any portion of this? When our group reevaluated our project we took a step back – Instead of providing a product for Blind and Low Vision folks, we wanted to make something for people like ourselves. Young, independent theatre makers who don’t know where to start! To have had the opportunity we have had, making connections within the Blind and Low Vision community in Canada, I feel empowered to continue this conversation and share my experiences through this resource.
The crux of my work and experience with the BATT can be summed up in one word: effort. This project took time and energy, and we have spent the Fall 2020 semester navigating how to be a sighted person tasked with bridging a gap for blind audiences. As our term comes to a close and we finish this assignment, I now realize that honest effort is what is necessary, both to complete a school assignment and for sighted theatre creators to access blind audiences. There is not a single solution that is going to magically fill a house with audiences, blind or otherwise. It takes honest effort to get to know communities and invite them into your theatre spaces. It takes effort to learn and engage with the stories that audiences want to consume. Access is not about filling a quota or checking a box on a grant application. I believe that if someone truly wants to make their artistic practice accessible, then they must take the time and use the resources at their disposal to heartfully connect with their potential audiences to learn what real strategies they can implement in their work.
As a sighted person, theatre maker, and activist, I was very enthusiastic to start this project – but I had no idea what I was doing. Through Ryerson University’s “Design Solutions Supercourse”, I was attracted to Nightwood Theatre’s challenge “to explore and employ digital solutions to address theatre’s systemic exclusion.” Artistic Director Andrea Donaldson and her associate Teiya Kasahara guided us in the creation of this toolkit, and have been supportive all the way through.
Of course, not having experienced blindness myself, I had a lot to learn, and even more to consider. Thankfully we’ve been aided by Jess Watkin, a Toronto-based Blind & Disabled Artist-Scholar and Accessibility Consultant. Her insight into current limitations to accessibility in theatre and feedback have been instrumental in the creation of this toolkit, and we are beyond thankful for her contributions. Reviewing and refining our work with her guidance felt like a necessity; four sighted people simply cannot assess the effectiveness of accessibility strategies intended for blind and low vision theatregoers.
This experience has been humbling and enlightening. I am filled with gratitude by the compassion and enthusiasm shared between my team members, Nightwood Theatre, and Jess. I have never purported to know all the answers, but I am passionate about finding them. My hope is that this toolkit will help bring about increased awareness about blindness and disability in theatre, but also catalyze change in a historically discriminatory industry, in ways big and small.