Andrew Miller recently spent hours trying to book a ticket but, with the rollout of a new access scheme, he hopes his travails and those of other people with disabilities will soon be over.
Recently I spent three full hours trying to book a London theatre ticket. This involved half an hour on an unanswered call to an access line, having to join two separate membership schemes to ensure I was not charged for my essential companion, and I was not able to complete the purchase until a week after I began.
If I wasn’t disabled and in need of very specific seating, I could have completed the transaction within five minutes online. Some theatres do access very well and employ stress free, trust-based approaches. But all too often the industry’s booking systems create barriers, they are sometimes discriminatory and, I believe, stop people coming to theatres.
Part of the problem is that current arrangements are venue-led, designed to prioritise individual venues' needs over that of their disabled customers. And that approach of “having to fit in” doesn’t work for many disabled people.
What’s the alternative?
We need only look to Wales to find out. Hynt is a free membership scheme for people with access needs delivered by the Creu Cymru venue network. It offers a consistent approach to ticket booking across 41 different cultural venues, requiring D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent users only to sign up once to be able to book at any one of them. It offers free companion seats as standard, and a training programme to venues to improve their access.
I witnessed the success of Hynt firsthand as director of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama venues, where it made the lives of our disabled audiences and our box office staff so much easier.
Hynt was a groundbreaking initiative by Arts Council of Wales and, as a member of the Council that approved it in 2014, I feel great pride in all the achievements identified in the newly published impact report. I was particularly moved by one Hynt user’s testimony about how membership has restored their independence and sense of dignity. I was equally delighted to see how Hynt has boosted business at Theatr Clwyd and many other Welsh venues.
The report demonstrates how Hynt has improved quality of life for disabled audiences, improving access to culture, making cultural visits more affordable and increasing social interaction for users. It is estimated that for every £1 spent on Hynt, £6.05 of social value is created.
Meanwhile venues will welcome the fact that Hynt has generated an additional 144,000 attendances over the last decade, half of which were full price tickets. And for every complimentary ticket issued to Hynt cardholders, member venues generated an average of £23.53 in secondary revenue, scotching forever the myth of ‘free tickets for the disabled’.
But best of all, Hynt has provided nearly 30,000 disabled people with better access to culture. This evaluation has encouraged us to pursue our dreams of having this sort of impact UK-wide and has provided critical data to shape the newly announced UK version, All In.
Success story for Wales
In recognition of the success of Hynt, the Arts Councils of England, Northern Ireland and Wales and Creative Scotland have been working together to develop the Welsh programme on a larger canvas - not only geographically, but to cover the breadth and depth of the creative and cultural sector including live music, theatre, museums, festivals, art galleries and libraries.
The ambition for All In is significant. It aims to fundamentally improve the experience of disabled people attending arts and cultural events through barrier removal, greater consistency, making it easier to book tickets while generating new audiences for the sector. While All In is user focused at its core, it will also benefit the sector with the proven value of increased audience numbers and revenue, and in the overall recognition and combating of ableism.
Hynt is a terrific success story for Wales and has demonstrated true innovation. It’s now the job of All In to pick up that torch and signal to the UK’s 16m disabled people that in our cultural venues and festivals, everyone’s welcome.