Going to the theatre is a rich, immersive experience that shouldn’t be off-limits to anyone. Thankfully, in recent years, venues have been doing more to increase accessibility for disabled people in terms of physical access to the performance and building. Ramps have been installed, and accessible toilets and lifts are now in use. Once inside, more venues are also providing captioning, audio description and BSL services, as well as autism-friendly or relaxed performances.
‘I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.’ - Oscar Wilde
All of this is a real step forward in enabling disabled people to access and enjoy a visit to the theatre, once a ticket is booked. But how does someone with an impairment find out about performances and book a ticket in the first place?
Nowadays it's common for people to find out their information online. Theatres publish their seasonal programme months in advance, and people can book their tickets immediately – as well as see which performances are more accessible. But not everyone is able to access this information. For some, getting information from an inaccessible website is nigh-on impossible. It may be that they are visually impaired, colour blind, or unable to make sense of the many words and pictures they are faced with on-screen. So are theatres doing enough to ensure equality of access at this initial port of call?
Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, David Issac thinks not. In the Commission’s 2016 response to the Lords Select Committee Report on the Equality Act 2010 and its effect on the lives of disabled people, he called for a new national focus on disability rights - so that disabled people are no longer treated as ‘second class citizens’.
Restaurants, theatres, concert venues, sports stadia and all those providing services need to raise their game, he said, so disabled people are not at a disadvantage. Businesses must use digitalisation as an opportunity to make it easier for disabled people to use their services online. Denying access to a large customer base simply is not good business practice and large venues must make it easier for disabled customers to access and buy tickets.
So what can theatres and other venues do to make their websites more accessible? The Recite Me toolbar is used by many businesses to enable disabled customers, clients and partners to use their site more effectively. For users whose first language is not English, for example, there is a translation option. Font sizes can be easily adjusted, text can be read aloud, and a dictionary used if needed. Even features such as changing the colour scheme can be super handy for people who may find it difficult to identify what they need on a busy, colourful site.
We’d like to see web access considered more in guides such as the accessible theatres guide, so that more people are able to experience the wonder of live theatre.