I am delighted to announce that I have been awarded one of 10 new Arts and Humanities Research Council funded Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Fellowships for my project on inclusive audio description at the theatre. In this year-long initiative, I will be working with audio-description providers VocalEyes and Mind's Eye, access champion Vicky Ackroyd from Totally Inclusive People, and theatre companies including Mind the Gap Studios, The Octagon Bolton, the Donmar Warehouse and Shakespeare's Globe.
This project developed out of the 2019-20 Describing Diversity research project jointly run by VocalEyes and Royal Holloway University of London with additional support from Shakespeare’s Globe and Donmar Warehouse. Its key output was a report, Describing Diversity: An Exploration of the Description of Human Characteristics Within the Practice of Theatre Audio Description. [download the report here].
Between March 2019 and May 2020, we investigated how diverse human characteristics might best be described in the audio introductions used by theatre audio describers to introduce blind and partially sighted audience members to a play’s characters before the play starts. Along with touch tours and live audio descriptions, audio introductions provide blind and partially blind theatre goers with essential information about the play’s setting, costumes, props and characters. Our research found that references to protected characteristics such as gender, race, disability and age are not always made in inclusive and ethical ways. Either describers avoid mentioning such characteristics for fear of ‘saying the wrong thing’, or they inadvertently use loaded or negative language to describe them. In both cases, blind audience members are not given access to the visual markers of diversity available to their sighted peers. Our Describing Diversity project addresses this lack of equity by using the research findings, as well as consultation and workshops with audio describers, to develop a set of recommendations about best practice in AD for both audio describers and theatre professionals. These recommendations are designed to promotes equality, diversity and inclusion both for people being described and for people listening to the descriptions. The report was published in September 2020 and has already informed ITV’s accessibility policies.
This AHRC Fellowship project ‘Inclusive Description for Equality and Access’ (IDEA). will support and enable theatre professionals and audio describers to engage with and explore our findings in order to promote the creation of inclusive descriptions which celebrate diversity in ethical ways. We will work with directors, casting directors, actors, access professionals, front-of-house teams at producing theatre companies as well as audio describers and blind and partially blind theatre goers, to promote the value of AD as both a communicator and a driver of equality, diversity and inclusion. IDEA will also seek to increase the diversity of audio describers, blind and partially blind theatre goers and theatre professionals by engaging under-represented groups with the creation and reception of inclusive audio description.
We will focus on the following key questions:
1) How can audio describers describe diversity characteristics, especially race and disability in an inclusive and ethical way?
Race was the diversity marker which attracted the most comments in our survey and interviews and integrated casting (sometimes referred to as ‘non-traditional casting’ or ‘colour-blind casting’) is a key issue to explore in IDEA. Whilst IC can refer to situations in which an actor’s age / gender / disability / body shape are not taken into account by casting decisions, in the survey responses it was most often evoked with reference to race. The recent rise to prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK and the increased awareness of the effects of white privilege are further evidence that the question of how and when race is described to blind and partially blind audience members is a pressing issue which will be at the heart of IDEA.
2) How can audio descriptions take account of the creative team’s vision for the play?
The importance of consultation with actors and directors at an early stage of the audio description production was frequently highlighted and practical difficulties such as cost and staff availability were cited as the key barriers to this happening. IDEA will facilitate better consultation between audio describers and the creative team by
- Embedding an awareness of and interest in AD in the DNA of theatre
- Helping theatres to understand what is at stake if AD is not inclusive and ethical
- Raising awareness of and interest in aspects of diversity that ADs may not yet have direct experience of it
- Connecting individuals and organisations through exploration of shared interests and initiatives
- engage a diverse range of theatre professionals, blind and partially blind audience members and audio describers with the report’s findings and the practices of audio description more broadly
- strengthen existing networks of audio describers and theatre professionals by creating a safe space for discussions and a shared set of resources on the project website
- create new partnerships with theatre professionals and audio describers who were not involved in the preparation of the ‘Describing Diversity’ report but who are interested in developing their own understanding of and practice in inclusive audio description
- provide support (through mentoring; training; peer support; access to resources such as a video and a MOOC; support for community engagement; help with audience feedback) to theatres, theatre professionals and audio describers who want to implement the recommendations of the Describing Diversity report
- promote the value of inclusive audio description for a range of audience member groups beyond blind and partially blind audience members and in so doing increase the visibility of audio description in the theatre
- encourage the use of inclusive audio descriptions, particularly audio introductions, in films and on television, for both live and pre-recorded content.
To achieve the above aims, we will work with a diverse range of theatre companies to produce 2 audio-described productions per partner. We include theatres outside the south-east of England; theatre companies who work with or represent under-represented groups; theatres who are interested in extending their audience base to under-represented groups and theatres who would like to strengthen their equality, diversity and inclusion practices.
The project will also employ post-doctoral researcher Rachel Hutchinson as Project and Community Engagement Manager. Rachel received her PhD from the University of Westminster in 2020. Her thesis examines the impact of inclusive audio description on engagement and memorability in museums for blind and sighted people. She is was a post-doc research assistant on the Describing Diversity project and lead author of the report.