Reflections on accessibility
In the last six months, I have upskilled myself in accessibility skills.
I always considered myself to be someone who works at interfaces, who can go between different communities and adapt the way I communicate according to the needs or culture of the communities.
But that's really still a very very tiny section of the world we live in. And even though I do move in various languages and cultures, my ability to communicate is pretty predicated on everyone having similar ability in hearing, speaking and seeing.
I stumbled upon a creative captioning course last year. It was run by Access Path Productions and SRT. I had signed up for it during one a break for one of the Until Death shows. Here's a definition of creative captioning from Stagetext:
"Creative captioning is when captions are artistically integral to the show, for example if they are part of your set design. Creative captions are developed alongside the show and are designed to complement the set and the performance."
It's a blend of technicalities and art, and of course, the joy that comes from contributing to greater accessibility is beyond compare. I realise that most of the time, there isn't much more we need to do beyond just helping to remove roadblocks for those that mainstream society wasn't designed for. And learning to recognise what the roadblocks look like requires patience to learn and understand, and then sometimes going one step further, to develop actual skills to facilitating the removal of blocks.
That course led me to join SRT's Inclusive Young Company (iYC), helmed by Grace Lee-Khoo of Access Path Productions. I wondered what place I had in a group that defines itself a "holistic acting programme for young adults between the ages of 16-35 who identify as persons with disabilities." I didn't identify with a disability. I had imposter syndrome. I really questioned what was beneath that fear, and what did it matter anyway if the group welcomed all abilities?
I technically joined as a participant, but there's nothing that says I can't also be playing the role of creative enabler. Besides participants, a group of volunteers called creative enablers are also part of the company. They perform various tasks such as audio description for our visually impaired participants, or one-to-one facilitation to support the main facilitator. This model worked really well. There's also nothing to say they couldn't partake in the activities if they wanted to. There was space for all. It became less important to draw lines around definitions because we were guided by the principles of inclusivity.
Over four months, we met on Saturday mornings at Nexus International School's Black Box to tackle various aspects of performance. I learnt that in the previous year which was their first, they had first looked at inclusive performance making, studying performance artists such as Marina Abramović and Yoko Ono. I would have liked to study that.
It's interesting that in a group of diverse abilities and disabilities, I felt included as someone who didn't identify with a disability. Which puts into sharp focus the mechanics and narrative of inclusion: Who is including whom when we talk about inclusivity? Do we have to be so intentionally inclusive only because the social and physical infrastructure make exclusion the default?
iYC is a tremendously interesting experience for me, as a performer and educator. During our showcase on 7 May, Grace reminded The Young Company to also give constructive criticism, not to do iYC the disservice of setting the bar so low. "The bar is usually so low that we can just step across". It was a hard hitting truth even as it provoked some laughter.
Continuing with expanding my accessibility skillset, I signed up with Equal Dreams' Speech to Text Interpretation course. This is a theory and practice focused course and I recommend anyone who's interested in improving accessibility through learning actual skills, to go for it. Even if you don't plan to work this field, gaining an in-depth understanding of deaf culture does inform your work in other areas especially if it involves public services.
Speech-to-text interpretation, more commonly known as Notetaking for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, provides meaning for meaning transcription to aural information. This form of access service is utilised in both online and in-person settings learning environments by Deaf and Hard of hearing individuals who prefer to access information by text instead of or in tandem with sign language interpretation.
This took place over 5 Friday mornings online, and was hugely transformational in how I understood communications. Here are some thoughts I had as I progressed through the course.
While doing the interpretation simulation, I had to fight urges to summarise when I was falling behind, had to unlearn minutes taking techniques. Also beginning to understand how vast Deaf culture is - it's another world in itself. But there is also intersectionality in terms of identity, like what if someone is deaf and LGBTQ+? Or deaf and also a recent immigrant? So much to think about and so much accessibility questions to explore in society.
I realised that we need to have a very clear and logical way of thinking in order to build a robust shorthand dictionary. And having access to other languages also helps.
Like learning a language, gradually adding more shorthand and practising is important. We might have different ways of associating words to shorthand because our brains are all unique. That's why it's important to have our own system. The fragmented nature of the deaf education system makes it even harder for deaf students to navigate it. We should not assume they all have the same experience, as it would be very dismissive and maybe hurtful.
Equal access means no more, no less. In the long run, it would be a disservice to deaf clients if we provide them with more access than they would have had if they are hearing. Perhaps they would come to rely on this advantage, or other students might see it as unfair and we are unintentionally creating unhelpful dynamics between the client and their peers.
When A was sharing about her experience in her CCA and in class, I realise that people belonging to minority cultures usually have to perform so much of the labour to gain the same access to belonging as people belonging to the dominant culture. When she shared about recording a video of herself presenting her work, and having to subtitle it so her hearing classmates and teacher could understand, it hit me that it's not just about the mere fact of transmitting information. Sure that is important, but it's about being able to express yourself, in your own voice. Sure, A could have just typed out what she wanted to communicate in her presentation, and have someone narrate for her, or even use AI to do that. But I felt she really wanted to provide access for her classmates to experience her culture and her mode of communication. It has intrinsic value. I very much feel the need to advocate, to work at increasing multilateral accessibility to mainstream understanding of deaf culture and to spread awareness of options, so that accessibility can be more equitable.
So far, I've noticed a common thread in my learning journey - universal design is a good way to think about inclusivity. For example, note taking software that improves a speech to text interpreter's ability to do their job also makes life easier for transcribers, minute takers, or the average person who wants to type more quickly. A performance with creative captioning would benefit not only Deaf viewers, but also people who might not fully catch every word because the performance isn't in their first language.
Sometimes I'm afraid that these will remain as grand declarations, yet I know that as a person I cannot do everything. Doing such deep dives into specialist topic areas has intrinsic value and that is the most natural mode of learning for me. As an older and kinder person to myself now, I can confidently reassure myself that all of this learning will be integrated into things I do, and that will make the world a better place overall.