THE BLOG

Getting Closer to No Boundaries

28/02/2014 13:34 GMT | Updated 29/04/2014 10:59 BST

In 2013 I sat at home to watch the Arts Council of England's State of the Arts Conference online. I turned off within 20 minutes - not because of the content but because I couldn't access the content (I'm hearing impaired and need subtitles).

This year there were a few changes: it had a new name - No Boundaries, Arts Council England didn't organize it, a consortium of arts organisations did led by Watershed and Pilot Theatre, it happened in two places simultaneously (Bristol and York) and it was also accessible.

@oneandonlydebs‬: It was by far the best access i have seen on a conference so big ups all round for that. no turning back now. this is the benchmark #nb2014

I'm used to events having reasonable physical access, identifying quiet spaces, ensuring accessible rooms are reserved as part of booking conference hotels and I'm used to having trained and welcoming staff (yup, they did all that too) but it's the online stuff available here that really broke the boundaries.

So what was offered?

Live and live streamed subtitles, live and live streamed BSL interpretation, and audio files describing presentations available online. Oh and not just live streamed - they are now there in the play-again function too and will remain as long as the content is up.

So how did they do that then?

The event took place in Bristol and York, and the BSL team was in Bristol, being filmed at the same time as the speakers (huge thanks to Interpreters Direct).

The caption team, from Stagetext, worked remotely from their homes in Wanstead and Wiltshire - connected to the audio and visual fields by headsets and screens (huge thanks Wendy and Orla)

The online magic was done by Oliver Humpage at Watershed who is creating a series of blogs explaining how it all worked so that no one has any excuses next time for saying its beyond them. He reckons it was relatively easy...

‪@oliverhumpage‬: @joverrent the great thing is it entirely used tech we've used before, we just had to combine it in a new way. Simple :)

Did I have anything to do with this? Not really. I was employed by the event to support them around access, give a few names, push them a tad when things got tight. Mainly my role was to be Jiminy Cricket - a constant and probably quite annoying nagging reminder that they had to do it differently. And I started nagging everyone else well before the event went live through video provocations too.

So it's great to feel groundbreaking, great to feel boundaries have been broken, but was it really a fully accessible event?

No.

Let me tell you about some of the stuff that didn't quite work out.

Conferences and talky events tend to focus on access for hearing impaired audiences rather than visually impaired people - 'oh, its people speaking, where's the barrier in that then?'

Have you seen some of the visual presentations people bring with them to back up their cases? Their all singing, all dancing Keynote's, PowerPoint's and Prezzi's.

But to get these described and recorded and up online in time was a real challenge. There is a culture in the arts sector of last minute-ism no matter how much you nag there are some people who think they are so powerful they don't need to prepare in advance so just rock up on the day and plug in. A reminder to you all - when you do that you are excluding people. Why would you want to do that?

Videos too - so few people bother to subtitle or audio describe their video submissions yet it's incredibly easy now - and the impact extends access far wider than simply disabled people. Think of those who have English as a second language, those whose computers aren't quite as modern as yours so the image quality is distressed, those accessing content in public spaces and who've forgotten their headphones... No Boundaries was tweeted about in over 20 countries - I reckon the subtitles helped with this for sure.

Who else was excluded?

Anyone who finds a wall of words hard would have been excluded. There was one practical workshop - on how to involve scent in your work - and a rather cracking disco, but if you had a learning disability, a short attention span, a cognitive impairment that made sitting and listening hard work then you would have struggled. The draw back with the multi-city, online element was that there wasn't much space to talk publically. To debate, to question, to argue and to actually roll up your sleeves and do stuff.

There was visual note taking by Nat Al-Tahhan - a great way to capture the heavy words and concepts in a different way. I'd love to see more of this and more easy English text appearing too (get all presenters to explain their pitches in 200 words without using jargon - oh yes, please).

So with all this access, were there disabled people there to take advantage? Yes in Bristol, and to a lesser extent in York, and plenty online too which is great. A few gripes that there wasn't a headlining disabled speaker programmed - but it's not Noah's Ark and it was a more diverse range of speakers than I've seen before, including 17 year old Sophie Setter Jerrome who hasn't turned off her computer for over 2 years.

The very best bit? If truth be told for me, it wasn't the access, the speakers, the brunch or the book presented on the second day made from the speeches on the first... it was the woman paid to put glitter on our faces for the evening party in Bristol.

Got to love a bit of sparkle.