Ruth Gould’s office as the Chief Executive of DaDa is in a corner of Liverpool’s newly refurbished historic Bluecoat arts centre. Her hearing dog makes himself comfortable in a basket in the corner of the room. For Ruth and the world she and her team work in, her dog is a tool that they need to work for them in the same way that they need computers and websites to work for them, to heighten their and their audience’s access to communication and culture. Ruth is not modest in her hopes for the organisation.
“DaDa is a disability and deaf arts development agency, and we trying to change the world; we’re trying to make disability something that is more acceptable and something that is seen as part of life; rather than a stigma. We are trying to sex it up. Disability affects everybody in their lives at some point and yet we still have some major hang-ups on how we view disabled people and how we view bodies, older bodies and acquiring impairment. We are addressing inequalities and repressive practices of discrimination as well as celebrating the lives and cultural identities of deaf and disabled people”.
Ruth feels that art has a central role to play in exploring what it means to be disabled, for both disabled and non-disabled audiences.
“Art can really be the shop window into the world I am talking about, by really creating experiences that people can relate to and see. Museums and the arts often hit the heart, causing people to respond to things they have never thought about or explored before. For example in our festival this year we have the ‘Rolling Exhibition’ which are photographs taken by a young man who was born without legs. Instead he gets around on a skateboard and has developed photography to capture what he calls the ‘universal stare’. He says that wherever he goes around the world, he takes photos of people looking down at him from his skateboard and it’s fascinating; no matter their age, their gender, their race, it is the same stare. People really respond to these photos because they are statements about human experience, with a really strong message. In fact they can be really challenging and educational to people”.
Although accessibility is something that arts organisations often talk about, in a way accessibility is everything to DaDa. Failing on “accessibility” would be a criticism that any arts organisation would be worried about; but for DaDa, to not address accessibility would be unthinkable, and their conception of accessibility encompasses not just technical and technological means, but the ability of a piece of art to move, educate and challenge. It is an ambitious unbroken line of expression from artist to audience. Ruth has strong reservations about how other arts organisations see “accessibility”.
“It is a constant clash with the arts, and the messages they give out. People want to be accessible in the wider sense; in terms of information and communication methods, making sure you are not creating barriers with the things that you are doing, but a lot of people do not see that as a creative challenge; in fact they see it as dumbing down their creativity. For example I have a leaflet for a major festival that we’re involved in here that has 8 different fonts, most of which are tiny, and it clearly demonstrates a particular style but has little concern for whether or not people can actually access the information they need to. Even if it insists on having tiny font sizes it could at least say “this information is available in an accessible format from X”; but it doesn’t; that means they’re breaking the law.I still think people miss-construe what access can be in its true sense. To us we see it as a creative challenge of making things more widely available. And particularly when you are a publicly funded as an arts organisation, you should really be working towards those principles.
“In this day and age, when we’ve got a Disability Discrimination Act, we should really be making sure information is accessible. Most arts organisations are failing and no-one is actually taking them to court over it. We can’t afford to take people to court, but we’ve got to keep on throwing those challenges out, and always think about what our message is and is it coming across. That isn’t to say we always get it right ourselves. The thing is to be open, and to be able to accept comments. One of the big things about accessibility is knowing your procedures and your standards, and knowing your staff will work with them. The arts sector actually has a high turn over of staff around marketing and communication and if you have principles that you want everybody to work toward, you shouldn’t have to keep going over the same old ground again with people. It is hard because people feel that in order to make something accessible it compromises their creativity, but we actually think the opposite. If you can make your creativity work in a different way, then surely the more people who access what you are doing, the better”.
Ruth is concerned that there is almost a presumption in the arts that exclusivity has a certain caché, an attraction. Formally at least the Arts Council’s guidance, however, is progressive.
“With the Arts Council, they expect you to be accessible; but clearly there is a large difference between the accessibility standards that we hold ourselves up against and the standards that you’ll find generally in arts organisations. So there will continue to be a tension. And when people come at us with an intellectual argument, we have to come back at them with a counter argument. For example, next year we will be focusing on the theme that we are “avant guarde”; that we do things differently, and that’s great. That’s about making accessibility sexy, and making it seem exciting rather than seeming like a compromise. Even we want to be surreal at times but our messages will not be compromised by how we get our information out. We hope that when people see those messages, people will stop doing this small print silly stuff, which is excluding people from what they are trying to put out there. It will be an ongoing battle, because it is always different people that come into post. You just have to stop losing heart with it, and just keep going”.
Not one website, but many
At the core of DaDa’s identity is their website, now in its sixth iteration since 2001. While the stereotype might be that a disability agency is not “at the cutting edge” in terms of modern internet design, in fact DaDa have always tried to stay abreast of new technology, because technology can bring so many accessibility benefits. The first thing you notice about the DaDa website is that you are asked about you. The first phrase found on the site reads “Welcome to DaDa. As this is your first visit to our site would you like to customise your experience? Your choices will be remembered for future visits so you won’t see this screen again, but you can access these and further access choices at any time by selecting the ‘Accessibility Options’ link located top right of the page.”
The options below, in big buttons, comprise “Enter site now”, “Easy Read”, “Text Only”, “Choose Colours”, “Choose Text Size” and “Slow Connection”. At any time you can reconfigure how you want the site to look. Whereas most arts organisations spend a long time worrying about what one colour scheme represents them best, what one typeface and what exact layout, DaDa are not about finding a single solution, they are about diversity; diversity of choice. For Ruth, this is at the core of accessibility.
“The ‘One Size Fits All’ attitude just doesn’t work any more. And under the legislation, people shouldn’t be operating like that as a business, and can actually be taken to court over things like this. So it’s really important that people start to think about it more. The way we do it is that on our website we give people lots of options; although there are still gaps. We want to start putting a BSL (British Sign Language) option there, so that would a further stage for us.
As an example of the diversity of formats we use, we have a newsletter that goes out every Wednesday, that has a PDF file attached, and a Word document, and it’s copied into the body of the email. We give out different sized print copies as well. This gives people different options with regards to how they will receive it, in order to meet different access needs. This is part of our practice; we do it every week, and we wouldn’t do it any other way.
When we had the time and resources, we used to do it in BSL, but now we are down to 5 staff and don’t have such luxuries of resources. Deaf people know that and we have a desire to continue that again in the future. But that gives you an idea of how we define accessibility.
“When we are delivering projects in schools, we don’t listen to what for example the teachers tell us. Instead we will talk to the young people directly and ask them what their access needs will be. For example the interpreters used for a lot of young deaf people are not qualified. This always makes a difference with how they engage. So whenever we do a project, we always use qualified interpreters; and they always engage much more deeply. When we learn about wheel chair access, we consider if it’s an electric wheel chair, and what other requirements they have; if they go the toilet, do they need a hoist or can they do it manually in a normal accessible loo and so.
We will always ask a lot of in-depth questions to make sure their accessibility needs are always met. What is sad is that most disabled people don’t expect to be asked, because they are so used to having to get on with shoddy treatment and things not being in place for them. It really empowers them. I think that is why DaDa Fest has been a success for 9 years now, because we have range of access options in place. And will always go to a place where we can have as many wheelchair users as possible for example, because most fire regulations are very restrictive. We have a huge amount of thinking we have to bring to our work in order to be a good example of best practise in what we are doing. So for new people who make our website the first port of call we have to get the messages right straight away”.
The team thought carefully about how to choose the options for their website.
“We did that with the people who designed it, Firechaser. They came and met with all the staff team and some of our external stakeholders who we work with as well, and a company called Easyread which is a company for people with learning difficulties, and it was by listening to everybody’s different needs and the way in which they would access the website that we came up with the pages that we have got. For example there is an easy read version for people with learning difficulties, or for people to whom English is not their first language. So every time there is some narrative in the website, we try and make it very clear in plain English copy as well, so we take out some of the big words and abbreviations so that people will not feel alienated. The blind and visually impaired set their computers up in different ways, with different texts.To give you an idea, we once had four different visually impaired people on our board, and I had to print my agendas in four different formats: 18 point font, 22 point font, 38 point font, and 78 point font, which meant that one agenda pack was huge! People don’t realise that’s one of the things technology has enabled us to do, eliminate all that paper work once needed to make information accessible. And audio now makes accessibility brilliant.
“We still want to develop a bit more, especially as software is getting cheaper. Costs coming down helps us to keep up to date with everything. For example, the Jaws screen-reading software that one member of my staff needs was £1500; but it’s now down to £500; the costs are coming right down and it’s helping us keep up to date. We’ve had to update all our software for the new Outlook and Windows, so a bit of a challenge there but technologies are brilliant in what they enable us to do that we couldn’t do before. Normally people only have to deal with technologies such as screen reader software when they come into contact with a blind person. You don’t get many visually impaired people in arts organisations. One in two disabled people are unemployed in this country. And in the arts sector, 2% of people have a disability. But we are around about 17-18% of the population. So you can see there is no equality in there. We have a long long way to go; we still need cultural change. People will still look at a disabled person and think ‘I can’t afford to have them working for me’.
But with regards screen readers, which are a way to equip a disabled person with accessible technology, most organisations are reactive, not pro-active; they don’t think ahead. So really we should see with big arts organisations that when computers are in place for public use in an exhibition or presentation setting, they are always equipped with screen readers, so that people get can used to going to those places and finding their needs met. Because at the moment visually impaired people think that their needs will not be met, so they won’t bother going in. I think that’s a real challenge to throw out to those particular organisations because new technologies can do something quite exciting for us and we really need to challenge them to get an access budget there. And to get somebody who really gets excited about the new ways you can access things and not just see it as a bind, something they have to do”.
Ruth uses the example of screen readers as a piece of accessible technology that blind people use that can be either helped or hindered – or enabled or disabled – by the way arts organisations set out their web-pages.
“Organisations don’t need to install things such as BrowseAloud. No software is needed.
They just need to have their text set out logically; it’s not any harder than that. They need to think about their website properly. The person in their home will have whatever particular screen reader software they prefer. People accessing things in their home just need to have a logical way of going through a website. And there are easy ways of doing that. Organisations can have an on-line check list, so you can actually do accessibility checks. It is always advisable to do three or four, and you will get a grade, and people will know if it’s working or not. But I think it’s a real challenge, especially with ‘Flash’ and short little films that are coming out, because they are not audio described- they are not accessible for visually impaired people.
“A big change next year, is that the Arts Council is going to insist that every arts organisation that they fund has a disability strategy in place and know how they are going to meet their information needs, their communication needs, their employment practises, their programming, their curating, to do with disability inclusion. They haven’t really done it yet, because they have been going through a re-organisation, but that will start to get other arts organisations coming crying to us asking ‘what do we need to do?’”
As relatively simple as it to make a webpage accessible to screen readers – at its most basic you just need a page in text only, logically set out – Ruth despairs of the majority of websites.
“We had a digital playtime in our office last Tuesday, where Alison, who is visually impaired, talked us through how she accesses information, and she immediately said that she doesn’t go onto websites as a rule, because she finds them so difficult to navigate; she hasn’t got forever to wait to listen to a description of every bit of trivia on a site that doesn’t have the headings she wants right at the top. Websites rarely take her to where she needs to go. Also, they will ask her to do things like ‘click onto the top right-hand icon’. But she can’t see that of course.
She went on our website and found it very easy. And our website remembers the preferences you set from the first time you go into it. From now on she will be doing her own blogs on our website”.
DaDa’s digital play sessions are regular times for the DaDa staff to talk to eachother and share digital ideas and experiences. Ruth instituted them as part of AmbITion, after realising that sharing perspectives just across the staff team would in itself unlock a rich vein of diverse experience.
“We have had two digital play sessions so far, and we’re going to be doing them at least every six months. In the first one, we discussed voice recognition and things that work for us, and we are working towards those things. And in the next one, we decided we will identify particular areas we want to develop together, so we are going to have some group training. We want to understand what difficulty we each experience when using a computer. And we have been working with Alison really on that. She took us through so we had an idea how difficult it is for her to even open a Word document. It was really good for raising awareness within the office as to just how hard it is for her to communicate, even to send an email. It left us all a little bit more thoughtful about what we send her, because we can send a lot of banter in emails we send around, and that can distract her. For us it’s easy to scan something and know if it’s important, but for her she needs to listen to the whole thing before she knows if any of it’s relevant.
“So we are really excited about new technologies, and the progress we have made as an organisation. We have already completed one online project where we worked with animation and young people. There is a whole page of links to their films and blogs and things. That has been really exciting for them and we are starting to realise how beneficial this will be for the future. We have just moved up to Outlook and that is helping us with our shared diary and things. But we are waiting for our new extranet to come in which will be the big thing to change things dramatically in the office; access to the database and monitoring information as well. The next three months are key for our learning. Once we have got it set up we want to start doing visual and audio clips to put into our website. I want to do a video link blog, rather then a written one. The board are also getting involved”.
All of this is some way from where they started before their involvement with AmbITion.
“When we started we were all using handwritten notes, and the website was more like a brochure. The accessibility of it was a nightmare; we weren’t getting the creativity we wanted. The designers didn’t quite get what we were trying to do. Also the staff didn’t seem confident about what they could do and what it could do for them in the future.
“We all had work stations and email but that was all. Two years on, we all have brand new work stations, a much better understanding of what we want, and a brand new website that is much more interactive. We have a Twitter and a Myspace and Facebook that can engage with our public. Our newsletter subscribership has increased from around 250 to 600 people every week. Website visits are increasing; people stay on longer and read more; an average of three minutes, which is quite good. Artistically it is getting us to think more about projects and where we want to go. Also we all have webcams and need to know how we are going to link them into communication as well. So there is a way to go but all the staff are onboard. That culture change during AmbITion has been quite huge. There was a lot of fear around before, especially with regards access and visually impaired stuff, but now because we have been on the journey together, we’ve had regular touch-base times with the staff, we have had training on marketing and had people come in, we have really grown as an organisation, as have our ambitions. Staff are thinking more creatively about digital content which is exciting. We have also got some touch screens, so that when we go out and work with people we can have a very easy recording of how people enjoyed it. We are finding it easier to collate information as well”.
Ruth is convinced the recipe for change is quite simple:
“Working together. Desire to see change. Creating a learning environment for staff. Getting the board involved. Choosing the right company to work with…. We needed a company that would embark on a journey with us, and give and take. It’s even helped our web design company develop their experience. It has been putting specific staff into key training situations and we did have someone come onboard with prior IT knowledge that also helped the journey as well. They had their own clear ideas, and that clashed with where we were going, because he was younger and wanted everything to happen tomorrow, but some things take more time. And it takes time for people to develop in confidence. But he did come on the journey and could translate the technical terms and act as a bridge between us and the technical people. That has been a real change in the organisation. Now we don’t think we need an IT specialist because when we work with people outside of the organisation we now understand their language. Staff feel competent to deal with IT things themselves now”.
Getting to this stage however was not a smooth journey – the vast majority of web design companies seemed unable to help DaDa.
“We had a consultant to help us, Beth Aplin, and we put out a big call-out for a web-company that might be interested in getting a brief for this piece of work, and it was so disappointing; too many companies were too afraid of getting it wrong. So in the end, we interviewed four companies, and we chose one that had the most open approach to learning things themselves and would be responsive to what we actually needed.
“And while there are still niggles, we are in a long term relationship with Firechaser and they will be hosting our website and extranet, so we have time to improve. It is also being responsive to different people’s points with our website, because it’s not fixed, we can change it as we go. I think it was disappointing in the early days when we could not get people to get involved. One company was convinced it should cost us 10s and 10s of thousands to even do the simplest things. The range of website company costs is huge.
“But Firechaser are good; they were not experts in accessibility before but have a good reputation for doing websites in the arts. In terms of what they did for us it was quite new for them, but at least they were willing to listen. There was not one specialist company that we could find who had a native understanding of disability and accessibility issues. So the only approach was to work alongside a company and develop our approach and skills together.
I do have a particular story that is relevant, and it involves one company that came in so arrogant and full of themselves: because we’ve got people who may have mental health issues, or people who are totally blind, through to people who are profoundly deaf and who are hearing impaired like me, and everyone in between, to meet everyone’s needs is practically an impossible job; this requires compromise and a demonstration that you really care and want to meet these needs, and being honest even if you can’t be perfect. So we work very hard to learn and develop, and we thought we were especially good at visually impaired stuff. But this company had come in with a recording of one visually impaired person who had slammed what we were doing for one particular reason and therefore dismissed the 6 or 7 years we had spent getting to that point on the basis of it. The criticism was valid, but the company thought that on the basis of the one viewpoint that they knew how to change things. And of course if it was that simple we’d have done that years ago. That arrogance really highlighted their ‘know-it-all’ attitude that had no room for manoeuvre”.
Ruth admits she hasn’t always been taken with the language web developers have used, and feels there are some “accessibility” issues there.
“We have worked with a couple of earlier website companies who made us feel stupid. We need designers to listen to us. Firechaser were not afraid to get down to our level. You need a relationship with the website designer in which they listen to what it is you really want to do; what your messages are. They know how to get you there.
With regards the journey of our digital ambition, I just want to know how to get from A to B and what road to take. I don’t understand how the car itself works, and how all the tiny pieces of the engine move the wheels. I just want to know that it will move, and that I will arrive at my destination. I think a lot of people can be alienated by techno-speak. We know what kind of messages we want to get out there, and we needed to find the right balance between what we want to say, and how to say it. Web companies need to help in that.
I feel for me that while at the beginning I was afraid to say things, now I know some techno things and I am not afraid to say what I like. I feel I have become a bit of a champion in the digital sector in what I advocate for it. I was asked to lead one of the workshops at a recent digital conference. The aim was to make people aware of digital content. We forget that we’re ‘there’, we know what we want, and what we’d like to see happen. We just haven’t got the resources to do it all yet. But I was amazed to see that big organisations with big budgets were scared to embrace things like Facebook and Twitter because they didn’t want members of the public telling them about their work. They don’t get it! When people are afraid, they do put the barriers up, and prefer not ‘go with it’. I think the thing is not to be afraid of what technology can do when you know you need to control it for your ends”.
Not all software is equal
One of the things that Ruth has done is feel more empowered to explore new software and services. Free software unfortunately has not always been as useful as one might initially hope. “I’ve been finding that there are now things like subtitling software you can get, which is great, but some of the free software that is out there, that sounds like it would be good, is not compatible; like Survey Monkey, which I was excited to find, but it turned out it wasn’t compatible with screen readers. So we have to test a lot of things. I know there is some new online ticketing software you can use, but again, it’s apparently not compatible. So we have to be careful that we don’t think everything digital will work; we need to test things.
For example we have a Twitter and a Facebook and things, but Facebook is impossible for visually impaired people; it is impossible for them to navigate.
One of the problems with ‘Flash’ and photographs is that people don’t put audio or even text descriptions on them. With ours we will have a paragraph you can click that will explain what the image is. People don’t think about that. There are some great advances, but there are some things that aren’t there at all yet. In some ways, we could alienate more disabled people if we were to go down just one line, for example using Facebook too much. It is amazing how quickly people get into it. In just 6 weeks we had over 1000 people come onto our Facebook. It gave us a great sense of how people want to respond to us. But we can’t put all our energies into Facebook. There are a lot of layers we will deal with to make sure we get that information out there.
But one size doesn’t fit all, more and more, and that’s going to increase in society, not decrease. There’s no magic wand here at all. We’re always going to have to build into our work the thought that certain things need to be done to make things accessible, and not see it as a bind”.
Thanks for AmbITion
Ruth is pleased with the results of DaDa’s digital development. Even if her organisation is leading accessibility, she is never complacent about further improving.
“I would like to thank Ambition for choosing us and helping us to get that level of expertise from Beth, and move us on as an organisation. We really are a different beast from when they met us, and I will be forever grateful. The impact for us will be seen in the years to come”.