As schools reopen, the barriers to resuming arts education for disabled children "have been hugely increased".
Arts organisations are struggling to provide for disabled children as schools return amid new coronavirus safety restrictions.
The Department for Education (DfE) issued new guidance for England last week that allows visiting music teachers to return and ensemble rehearsals and performances, provided that schools follow specific health and safety guidelines.
But these new requirements - which include doing "everything possible to minimise contacts and mixing" - and the heightened vulnerability of some disabled people to coronavirus means disability arts education largely remains online.
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"You should take particular care in music, dance and drama lessons to observe social distancing where possible. This may limit group activity in these subjects in terms of numbers in each group. It will also prevent physical correction by teachers and contact between pupils in dance and drama," the DfE guidance says.
ArtsProfessional is aware of concerns among after school drama teachers that they must relegate disabled children to a "bubble of one" to meet new safety standards, or risk excluding them altogether.
Dance and music organisations too are hamstrung. Without enough staff to provide socially distanced classes, they say the barriers to educating disabled students "have been hugely increased".
Sho Shibata, Executive Producer of Stopgap Dance Company, says they took their classes online as soon as the lockdown happened.
The problem is getting back to in-person tuition: "We do have some concerns and are pulled in two directions," Shibata said.
A survey by Stopgap showed that class participants and their families are missing the interpersonal contact their lessons provide and are keen for socially distanced sessions.
"Despite our desire to respond to these heightened needs for support, the reality is that we only have three practitioners catering for eight groups, plus a handful of volunteers, and there are over a hundred young people in total, some of whom require one-to-one support," Shibata said.
He said the company is exploring what kind of socially distanced classes could work, but without its own building "it is looking increasingly difficult to fit into our weekly structure".
"The reality though, is that the social situation and difficulties that the covid measures have imposed on disabled young people and families means running a socially distanced session doesn’t necessarily mean they will be able to come.
"The barriers imposed on disabled children, young people and adults just being able to go about their business have been hugely increased."
Annabel Martin, CEO of blind and partially sighted children's music charity The Amber Trust, agreed that arts education for disabled children has become more difficult post-lockdown.
The Amber Trust generally works in special schools where the nuances of navigating post-Covid education for disabled children are perhaps better understood. In a mainstream school setting, the exclusion of disabled students from arts activities "is going to be a likely scenario," Martin says.
Until last week, the trust's staff were unable to visit schools. Even now, there are fears that arts will be cut from the curriculum as schools try to catch up on months of lost teaching time.
"I have had phone calls from head teachers at school that support visually impaired children saying their music department ... is going to have to cut the budget and can we help - of course we do," Martin said
Group work will still be difficult, she added: "Those groups are so important. The children in the bubble in the corner, that's going to be their life anyway. It's important that they're part of the group and they're included."
It is not only disabled children's education in the arts that is imperilled: nearly a third of disabled children have been advised against attending school altogether, according to a recent survey.
The Disabled Children's Partnership asked more than 4000 families of disabled children how lockdown had affected their education. 20% said they had been "informally advised by their school that their child should not attend," while another 11% had been formally assessed as being too high a risk.
Andrew Miller, UK Government Disability Champion for Arts and Culture, said that the Government's guidance for reopening the performing arts, which schools are advised to refer to, is clear that any new safety measures must comply with the Equalities Act.
"Reasonable adjustments need to be made ... what is going to be reasonable within a Covid-safe environment is another question."
Miller has been involved in the creation of "Seven Inclusive Principles for Disabled People in Arts and Culture," which was released by Attitude is Everything, We Shall Not Be Removed, Paraorchestra and What Next this week.
The document aims to ensure that deaf, neurodiverse and disabled people are not discriminated against as creative work resumes, balancing legal obligations with efforts to contain coronavirus and combat ableism in the sector.
The principles are:
- All organisational activities must comply with the requirements of The Equality Act (2010) and make reasonable adjustments to operating practice that ensure disabled people are not unlawfully discriminated against.
- All actions relating to disabled people should be undertaken in accordance with the Social Model of Disability and aim to combat and eliminate ableism.
- Co-production with disabled people: disabled people should be consulted when organisations develop bespoke operating or re-opening plans, and undertake Equality Impact Assessments before making decisions.
- Organisations need to provide clear, accurate and comprehensive information about Covid-19 measures to enable disabled artists, employees, audiences and participants to assess their own levels of risk, and be prepared to adapt to specific enquiries or requests.
- The customer journey for disabled audiences should be thoroughly mapped, ensuring it is equality impact assessed, clearly communicated in multiple formats to the public, and prioritises free companion tickets to maintain essential access
- Disabled artists are an important cultural asset in the UK and their engagement in all new creative projects should be prioritised.
- Organisations should ensure they celebrate diversity, embed anti-ableist principles to support and protect disabled people, and should demonstrate due care for the disabled workforce when making decisions about redundancy, restructuring and new ways of working.