Out of order?

Broken lift with Out Of Order sign

Our Marketing Associate, Rob Martin, writes about a simple way that organisations can think about improving internal processes to support better access.

Years ago, I worked in an arts centre where the lift used to break down a lot. Unfortunately,  it was the only way that a person using a wheelchair could get access to the cafe, the galleries or two of the three cinemas.

We had a regular customer, Elaine. She had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair and I swear she seemed to have a sixth sense for the days when the lift was out of order and she would position herself in the foyer and kick up a fuss, screaming that we were not providing adequate access to disabled people.

At the time, and we’re talking pre-computer systems, social media and mobile phones which make communicating with customers so much easier when something does go wrong, we thought we were the bee's knees of accessibility because we provided information in large print, had ramps, showed films with subtitles and programmed work with minority interest themes.

But Elaine was right.

From the earliest days of my career, I’ve made access a priority in my thinking about how arts and cultural organisations create true access. I learnt BSL so that I could communicate with deaf customers (I had no deaf colleagues) and put myself on ‘awareness’ courses to ensure that I, and we, were using appropriate terminology and being as inclusive as we could be. I wanted to make sure that access was about more than having a lift that worked.

But we constantly fell short, mainly because access was never given the priority in terms of resources that it should have been given.

Years later, arts organisations often appear to be at the forefront of thinking about access. Galleries provide interpretation in different formats. Museums offer tours in BSL. Theatres provide subtitles, touch tours of sets, audio described performances. Cinemas are now, more and more, offering screenings suitable for deaf people as well. It’s all good stuff.

But isn’t there more? Yes. There’s a lot more. And whilst forward-looking organisations are aware of that, their gaze is all too often focussed externally. But what about staff? What about recruitment? When you want diversity in your customers it pays to have it in the workforce too.

I’ve recently been supporting an arts organisation in the recruitment of a new Marketing Manager. I re-wrote the questions to avoid the trap of candidates being asked to repeat what’s on their application and, once they were agreed upon, I suggested that candidates should be given the questions in advance.

Initially, that suggestion was met with puzzled expressions. So we had a discussion about what interviews are for, if the traditional format works and how can interviews be a more accessible experience.

Most of us struggle with interviews. They’re a test of memory, of an organised mind, of how far you can push the truth… They’re not, traditionally, a relaxed opportunity for both sides to find out more and see if they’d like the relationship to continue. Once you’ve got to interview stage, the process should be about investigating if you’re compatible. Really, interviews should be more like a first date.

People like myself with autism, and those with other neurodiverse conditions, can find interviews extremely stressful, much more than most. Issues that go hand in hand with the process - eye contact, reading humour, talking too much, not talking enough - are challenges in everyday life for autistic people, let alone when a job is riding on it. For this reason alone, offering questions in advance supports neurodiverse candidates to let go of some of that stress and provides better access to a process which they experience differently from non-neurodiverse people.

But, as happens so often, opening up access to some people can create better access for everyone. This is certainly the case with job interviews where revealing the questions in advance helps candidates to relax, do better, fabricate less and, crucially, it helps to create a more open dialogue for both parties. Surely that’s a better way to make a decision about who is right to work with you?

It’s a quick win for any organisation. Also, it highlights how, when you put access as a priority, you open things up in ways that extend beyond those you’re directly aiming your efforts at. It’s always worth remembering that providing better access internally is also about more than having a lift that works…


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