How do people with disabilities perceive their chances of participating in the arts? Judith Sears told me about a frequently asked question at Arts Victoria that will surprise you – it certainly disappointed me – because it’s all about perception, not reality: “I know your grants aren’t for me, but where should I apply instead?”

Too many artists with disabilities assume that they’re ineligible for opportunities that don’t specifically invite applications from people with disabilities. Given that the entire Melbourne Fringe model is about open access participation and independent art, this was quite the realisation for me. What assumptions have we been making all these years? Does everyone really know what “open access” means? Unless we target people with disabilities strategically and sensitively, we can’t assume they will feel welcome to participate. It’s such a simple shift to make – and a great beginning to good disability action planning.

Communication and perception are key to making positive change. The four outcome areas for a Disability Action Plan (DAP) set out in the Disability Act 2006 (Victoria) are:


  1. reducing barriers to persons with a disability accessing goods, services and facilities;
  2. reducing barriers to persons with a disability obtaining and maintaining employment;
  3. promoting inclusion and participation in the community of persons with a disability;
  4. achieving tangible changes in attitudes and practices which discriminate against persons with a disability.


Writing a DAP is about looking closely at what your organisation does, working out all the barriers to access, and then setting actions on reducing those barriers. It’s a recursive and collaborative process that involves the whole organisation at every level, as well as your artists, your sector peers, and your partners and stakeholders.

It was 2009 when we began the process at Melbourne Fringe. Our Development Manager, Ella Hinkley and I attended the inspiring Art of Difference conference at Gasworks Arts Park. We met some extraordinary Australian and international artists, and exchanged perspectives with people in government as well as in arts management and audience development. At the closing session, the Department of Planning and Community Development’s Office for Disability announced that they’d soon be holding DAP training, and we signed up right away.

The independent arts are unfathomably diverse, encompassing a broad range of traditional and unconventional spaces and venues, as well as all the artforms we haven’t heard of – yet. To make sure we were best placed to approach the DAP, we assembled a vibrant advisory panel of artists, producers and artsworkers with a disability, as well as disability experts from arts organisations, peak bodies, local and state government. Coming together in mid-2010, we brainstormed on all the areas Melbourne Fringe needed to cover, and we discussed the kinds of framing principles that would support this process. As a developmental organisation, could Melbourne Fringe develop new areas of artist support, or would we look at ways to extend and enhance what we already do? Who could we partner with, and who could we learn from? How would we ensure that our artistic program, our marketing materials, and our artist and sector development work were informed by the perspectives of accessibility as well as disability arts?

It’s a detailed and forensic process once you start investigating, and it’s incredibly rewarding: you notice all sorts of new things about what your organisation does and how you do it. (A Reasonable Work Adjustments policy, for example – does your organisation have one?) In this way, it dovetails beautifully with various stages in the strategic planning cycle, because the areas and initiatives that it highlights don’t benefit people with disabilities alone.

By now, I have realised that the initial timetable I’d set was unrealistic. I’d imagined I could consult, investigate, write, review, seek feedback, redraft, consult, finalise, publish, present and action, all within the one Melbourne Fringe year. Rather than feeling disappointed at this stage, I feel enriched by everything we’re learning through the process. And we’ve got a few things together already:

  • We’ve partnered with Arts Access Victoria to provide one mentee with a valuable experience for JUMP, the Australia Council’s National Mentoring Program for young and emerging artists, for which Melbourne Fringe is the State Delivery Partner;
  • We’re presenting more Auslan-interpreted sessions in the Melbourne Fringe Festival than ever before;
  • We’ve improved the accessibility of many of our communications modes, promoting the use of the National Relay Service and the Companion Card, for example;
  • I’ve joined the Victorian Government’s Arts and Disability Action Network.

While this is just a beginning, there’s plenty we can each start doing ahead of making our own DAPs. For example, we have a strong capacity to influence the corporate sector and the broader community through our partnerships. Drop accessibility into the conversation the next time you’re meeting with a partner – keeping in mind how influential we are when it comes to their perceptions of contemporary culture.

Judith’s story was a real wake-up. It reminded me of some of my more tired teachers in school, who’d routinely say: “Hands up down the back if you can’t hear me!” We don’t know who we’re not reaching precisely because we’re not reaching them. Nor can we simply expect people with disabilities to let us know what they need.

As I’ve been going through this process myself, I’ve had an embarrassing experience that I’d like to share with you – because it’s quite telling. A few weeks ago, the Emerald Hill arts sector gathering took place: a lovely movable feast of an evening, with drinks and tours at the Australian Tapestry Workshop, AAV, Auspicious Arts Incubator, Theatre Network Victoria, the Butterfly Club and the Australian National Academy of Music. When I visit AAV, I make sure it’s during the daylight hours, and we meet in a room where the fluorescent lights can be turned off. (My brain condition is similar to epilepsy, and migraine is one of the manifestations, with triggers including fluorescent lights.) Given the gathering was a night-time one, I assumed that the AAV space would not be accessible to me, and so I headed off after the first gathering point. Even though one of the hosts, Veronica Pardo, is a colleague who also happens to be CEO of Arts Access Victoria, and even though I’d previously accommodated our colleagues’ accessibility needs in this sector gatherings series that I have fostered, in this instance it did not even occur to me to ask. I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone. And yet: Veronica had an alternate lighting plan ready to go! I made her a very sheepish apology the next day – and I felt even more driven to get our DAP right.

A minor moment of embarrassment on my part does not begin to compare with what other people with disabilities face every day. I’d like to see the Melbourne Fringe Disability Action Plan become a valuable independent arts sector resource, as well as a starting point for DAP-ing by independent companies and venues. Most importantly, I’d like to see accessibility become a normal part of Melbourne Fringe’s work – so that more and more artists with disabilities see the Melbourne Fringe Festival as an exciting and important presentation opportunity, as well as participating actively in our artist and sector development programs. We can do it – and the more of us going through the process, the richer the network for sharing experiences and ideas for making positive change.

First published in Arts Hub on 11 September 2011