The slump in disabled audiences’ confidence presents a major problem for the arts sector, says Andrew Miller.
Pre-Covid, disabled people made up a substantial 12% of national arts audiences. As plans for re-opening the sector develop at speed, it’s timely that Indigo Consulting’s new survey After the Interval Act 2 provides the first insight into what those disabled audiences are thinking now.
Around 4,000 (15%) of Indigo’s respondents self-identified as disabled, and the headline finding is that 77% of disabled audiences consider themselves to be “vulnerable to Coronavirus” whilst only 28% of non-disabled audiences do.
This represents a huge differential that conveys vastly different priorities and concerns between disabled and non-disabled audiences as they think about booking tickets for cultural events. And with good reason. According to the Office for National Statistics, disabled people accounted for over one third of all UK Coronavirus deaths between March and May, so entirely understandably, disabled people’s choices to attend mass gatherings are viewed through the prism of health risk management to a considerably greater extent than the non-disabled.
The good news is that disabled audiences will consider returning to venues with enforced social distancing and appropriate hygiene measures in place; but over a quarter (26%) will not consider returning to venues at all until a vaccine or treatment for Coronavirus is available, approximately double the number of non-disabled respondents with similar concerns.
What’s more, fewer disabled people are actively making advance bookings than their non-disabled peers; and fewer disabled people would consider attending any outdoor event (44% versus 51% non-disabled) as many are concerned about the ability of organisers to safely enforce social distancing measures.
So it's clear that Coronavirus poses a major new barrier for disabled people to engage with the arts and threatens all the progressive work that the sector has undertaken over decades to make venues accessible and to attract disabled audiences.
But none of this means that arts organisations can row back on their commitments to inclusivity. As one survey respondent observed, “Relaxed performances should still be available. Without these I am unable to attend. Casual theatre formats are often more suited to social distancing”.
The survey also uncovers other interesting disparities with the only alternative, digital engagement. Fewer disabled respondents regard online events as less attractive than live events compared with non-disabled people, but significantly more disabled people are not confident in using the technology to access them.
Taken as a whole, this new survey confirms that Coronavirus has magnified the inequalities facing disabled audiences and compromises cultural participation and engagement. The slump in disabled people’s confidence also presents a major problem for the arts sector. Losing up to 12% of your audience isn’t good news for anyone.
Once recovery is finally underway, every ticket sale will count and it will never have been more vital for our venues, museums and galleries to remove all possible barriers to engagement. Indeed, given the scale of the disabled audience and the strength of their purchasing power, it will be both a moral and commercial necessity.
Andrew Miller is an arts consultant & broadcaster. He is the first UK Government Disability Champion for Arts & Culture, a co-founder of #WeShallNotBeRemoved and a National Council member of Arts Council England and the Arts Council of Wales.