The shift to digital has been beneficial to many, but Ash Mann is particularly interested in what it could mean for D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people.
While pandemic restrictions forced cultural organisations to close their buildings - or at least welcome significantly smaller audiences than usual – it’s been exciting to see this crisis used as an opportunity to explore digital activity in a meaningful way.
But there are still questions the sector needs to address around this digital activity concerning business models, rights, artistic development, formats and so on.
What is unarguable is the exciting opportunity digital activity offers to anyone who has a device connected to the internet. Making work available online gives access to people who may not be able (or want) to, for whatever reason, travel to experience your work in-person.
Benefits to the D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent
Digital delivery allows people to connect from their homes, immediately removing barriers of geography and travel, and the physical and environmental barriers that confront many D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people at cultural venues.
Work encountered in this way – often from home - also gives individuals more autonomy and control over all aspects of the experience: from temperature and sound levels to comfort and toilet breaks, as well as to decisions about who else is present.
It has been encouraging to see organisations producing accessible versions of their content (although sadly not everyone is doing so) and recent conversations with those responsible for access at cultural venues suggest high demand for this accessible digital work. One access manager at a major UK venue said there had been a 10-fold increase in the number of people engaging with accessible digital content compared with the number they would expect to see attending their accessible events in-person.
A wide-reaching, holistic approach
While this is clearly an opportunity, it’s important to understand that to make digital work fully accessible it’s not enough to simply ensure that a video has audio description or captions, or an audio play comes with a meaningful transcript. It requires a more wide-reaching, holistic approach.
Digital experiences that are part of an artistic programme - whether that’s a livestream, a podcast, a longform article or a photo essay - exist within a broader digital journey. Every aspect of that journey must be as accessible as possible.
For example, is it straightforward to find out how, when, and where people can access your work? Can those who use assistive technology easily navigate your website? Can someone with a motor tremor easily stop, start, and pause the media player you’re using? Is it easy for people to turn on captions, or access audio description for content?
Proactively engage with users’ needs
Just as with every other aspect of digital activity, the things cultural organisations have started doing over the past 18 months don’t exist in a vacuum. Users don’t land at the right place on your website from nowhere nor do they intuitively know how to engage with what you’re doing.
People with specific needs, or who use assistive technology to access digital experiences, engage in a wide variety of different ways. Unless you proactively make efforts to understand the implications of that, you will be excluding some people - whether you mean to or not.
As the sector turns its attention to welcoming increasing numbers of people back in-person, I hope many of the positive initiatives of the last 18 months will be retained and built on, rather than jettisoned in favour of a return to ‘normal’.
Need to ensure pandemic ‘gains’ are not lost
This concern is echoed by disabled people, many of whom have been able to access more culture, in more ways than ever before over the course of the pandemic and are concerned those gains will be lost.
In addition, the challenges of digital accessibility aren’t always as visible as with in-person audiences. Because of this, there is the danger that they are classed as an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ issue, or are just simply forgotten. So, for those who are perhaps thinking that digital culture was a stopgap measure to paper over the cracks during the pandemic, I would implore you to think again.
Beyond being the right thing to do, there is also an economic imperative: 1 in 5 people in the UK are disabled. The combined spending power of these households is over £270bn, so by making your work available, in an accessible way, and in digital forms, you will be able to reach and engage with more of these people.
The digital divide
I am aware that for a large minority of people in the UK, digitally available work doesn’t make it any more accessible. The digital divide is a significant issue affecting millions. But that is not a reason to ignore the benefits of digital delivery, rather, this too needs to be tackled as a barrier to access.
Encouragingly, there are currently a small number of cultural projects that consider digital inclusion both a focus and key measure of success. I hope there will be more work in this area over the coming months and years.
If this is something your organisation could benefit from, or wants to improve on, (and I hope every cultural organisation does), then there are a few practical steps I would recommend.
First: audit and understand your digital experiences
There is expertise available to help with this. There is a good outline about commissioning an accessibility audit on the Government Digital Service Manual. It doesn’t necessarily require you to spend money to get a broad sense of where the issues may lie.
Free tools and resources help you to understand issues such as whether your webpages are navigable by screen readers, what reading age is required for your content to be understood, how people with different types of visual impairments view your website. They also provide feedback on content and design.
But these free and automated tools are not comprehensive enough to be used in isolation and may only uncover about 30% of the potential issues. It’s vital that you consult users with specific access needs or who use assistive technology. Ask them about their challenges, observe how they engage with your digital activity. You can learn more from these conversations and observations than almost anything else.
Next: fix the obvious stuff
Missing or meaningless alt tags, poorly structured HTML, nonsensical ARIA labels, baffling user journeys, poor design choices - all these things, cumulatively, have a significant impact on the accessibility of your digital work.
Yet they are all relatively straightforward things that can probably be fixed without any external assistance. They will have an immediate and noticeable impact on the accessibility of your work.
Lastly: commit to this being a core part of your work.
Simply putting out ad hoc aspects of your work in an accessible way isn’t enough. To offer an accessible experience once and then suddenly stop doing it, or to be confusingly inconsistent lacks foresight and can be insulting to the very users you are trying to engage.
As an ever-evolving area of work, it demands commitment to understanding the challenges disabled users face and to searching for new and innovative ways to reduce or remove those barriers in the longer term. We should all be attempting to create a culture of accessibility in our organisations.
By making your work more accessible for D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people you are making your work more accessible for everyone. It’s a win-win that I hope the sector embraces, even as people return to in-person experiences.
Ash Mann is Managing Director at Substrakt and Strategy Director at Creating Impakt.
This article is part of a series contributed by Substrakt exploring the many ways in which arts and cultural organisations can embrace the world of digital.