As part of Captioning Awareness Week, Melanie Sharpe is campaigning to raise awareness of access to the arts for deaf, defeaned and hard of hearing audiences.
It’s Captioning Awareness Week - a time to celebrate accessibility and spread the word to deaf, deafened and hard of hearing audiences that captions and subtitles are available in arts venues. It’s also a chance for every type of venue and organisation to celebrate their ‘wins’ regarding their access strategies and reflect on their ‘we could do better’ points. But for now, let’s celebrate as there has been plenty to celebrate over the last 18 months or so (believe it or not!).
Incredibly, it took a pandemic to make the arts more accessible. Last year, theatres started releasing performances online, with subtitles, for the first time. More and more online discussions were being made accessible through live subtitles – from small museum talks, to large conferences.
This was the first time deaf audiences had such a huge range of culture to choose from. In July 2020, deaf theatre lover Michelle, wrote: “My armchair has become my new theatre seat. I can honestly say that I have accessed more performances in these last few months than I have in a lifetime.”
Deaf-led advocacy charity
At Stagetext, we were overjoyed – and a little overwhelmed – by the cultural sector’s move to embrace subtitling of online content. The demand was huge (it increased fourfold) and for the first time in planning and curating captions and subtitles, Stagetext had to bring in additional staff to ensure good practice was being followed and delivered.
The learning curve was steep for everyone. We prepared six short videos on how to subtitle video content, and how to help people understand who benefits from accessible deaf subtitles, their use and the basic principles of creating them. These are still available to view.
Many are very familiar with Stagetext but don’t realise that it’s a charity. We are deaf-led and our main purpose is to advocate for equal access to the arts for deaf, deafened and hard of hearing people through the use of captions and subtitles. We work not only in theatres, but museums, online and in person to make the arts accessible.
Largest reported reach in 21-year history
This year Stagetext is celebrating its 21st birthday. Founded in 2000 by three friends with varying types of deafness, together they developed the quality standards for captioning live theatre performances. They also worked out where to get a caption box and how to use it; they trained captioners; and worked hard to spread captioning to theatres across the UK.
Over the years, we have started to offer other services alongside theatre captioning (for scripted performance), including live subtitling (for unscripted speech) and digital subtitling (for pre-recorded videos). We want every type of cultural engagement with a deaf audience member, viewer or participant to be an inclusive and equal experience.
We were fortunate to have such services in place when the pandemic hit, because it meant we could subtitle online. Last year we subtitled cultural work that was viewed over 9 million times – that’s the largest reported reach in Stagetext’s 21-year history. It’s a massive shift for the cultural sector and one which we can all be proud of.
Choice significantly reduced
But before we sit back and congratulate ourselves and say we did a great job, we have to reflect on what’s happening now. Unfortunately, it’s a little too soon to celebrate. We have more work to do in ensuring that level of access is still available.
Here’s a recent tweet from Michelle (October 2021): “After over a year of access to theatre with captions online, I am back to very little choice again […] 270 shows with 8 captioned.”
No wonder Michelle feels left out: her choice has significantly reduced. Going to a performance without captions isn’t an option for her and many others. So, what happened?
Now that lockdown has lifted, fewer theatres are releasing content online as they return to in-person performances. The number of captioned performances available to deaf audiences is returning to pre-pandemic levels.
Latest poll reveals the true level of demand
People are used to seeing subtitles on screens and online. A recent poll found that 24% of the general public now has captions switched on all the time at home and a further 26% has them on some of the time.
By contrast, seeing subtitles in venues is still relatively rare. Pre-lockdown, only around 1% of live performances was captioned. That just isn’t enough.
In the same poll, a third of the general public said they would be more likely to increase their attendance at live shows if captioning was offered. There are 12 million deaf, deafened and hard of hearing people in the UK. Now that access has been offered so widely online, going back to ‘business as usual’ just isn’t going to cut it. So, what can we do about it?
Making access the new normal
We need to work together as a sector to shift the way we think about programming accessible shows. For too long, accessibility has been seen as an ‘add on’, a hoop to jump through, rather than as an integral part of a venue’s ethos and approach to customer engagement. Providing access should be second nature, like putting on a matinee or providing ice-creams in the interval.
This means planning for access proactively and in advance. Access should be a line in all production budgets along with design and technical budgets. It should be part of any funding bid, including your NPO bid. It should be part of your staff training. It should be a tool that you use for inclusion, whether online, in person, or a combination of the two.
Captioning Awareness Week is the time for arts organisations to refresh their commitment to everyone who needs the support of captions and subtitles. Let’s make access the new normal.
Melanie Sharpe is Chief Executive Officer at Stagetext.
Visit the Stagetext website for tools and resources www.stagetext.org
Stagetext’s ‘Captions Speak Louder’ exhibition is at the Barbican from 15th November 2021 – 9th January 2022, then touring nationally.